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Last month, we were in Orkney, with my parents.

First off, Orkney is wonderful, and I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to spend some time there to do so. Don’t neglect to stop by the Orkney Brewing Company for, at the very least, lunch–the beer is also exquisite, of course, but that’s to be expected, and you can get their beer as far south as Glasgow (yes, even the Dark Island Special Reserve); the excellence of the food was a surprise.

Right, public service announcement out of the way, the other thing Orkney is known for, besides food and drink, is archaeology. Lots and lots of archaeology. Made me sorry my sister (a former classical archaeology major) wasn’t there. Or maybe not, because I’m afraid I didn’t even make it through the first room of the exhibit at Scara Brae before I started snarling at the display. It seemed as though every bit of stone or bone that showed any sign of having been shaped by human hands to any purpose beyond bare functionality–every hint of decorative detail, of ornament, play, or whimsey–was presented, with no further explanation, as having religious significance.

This story is a good example of what I’m talking about: faced with a set of Mysterious Objects, the first hypothesis that scholars responsible for explaining such things latched on to was that they were associated with some sort of phallocentric worship. Or, y’know, they could be matches. For making fire. To cook. As one does.

A couple days later, we wandered over to the Ness of Brodgar, where a similar story was being told: big building; nobody lived there, but lots of people ate there; it must be a temple!

Or a neolithic restaurant, banquet hall, community centre…

So what’s happening here? Well, from a rather lengthy discussion with one of the staff at the Ness of Brodgar site, it seems that the designation of the site as religious results from the use of a fairly sophisticated concept of ‘religion’, one which encompasses communal identity and social ordering, and is fairly neutral on questions of worship, transcendence, etc.–not that one could ever guess that from the explanatory posters placed around the site.

OK, honestly, I’m slightly hard pressed to care way or the other in what this or that bit of ancient stonework was actually used for (sorry, sis!); I can follow someone else’s line of reasoning, but I don’t have enough theoretical background or direct experience at digging up rocks to have a strong sense of anything in particular being at stake depending on whether our ancient ancestors were worshipping oddly carved rocks or just using them as bookends. I am a bit more interested in the way that the narration of these sites and artefacts enforces assumptions about religion as a category–about the way that we filter the past through our understanding of the present.

Modern religion has a huge amount to do with the way we organise ourselves into social groups, the way we identify where we come from, who we are, and how we relate to other people. It has a lot to do with our behaviour, the things we do because that’s just what everyone does, and the things we would never, ever do because one simply doesn’t. Belief, worship, connection to the transcendent–all those fuzzy, mysterious, unquantifiable things that leap most easily to mind when we think of “religion”–these are important, but they’re not all, or even most, of what religion is. It’s easy to forget that when we live in a fairly homogeneous culture, where people more or less share the same cultural/national/ethnic identity and set of customs and differences arise primarily on the level of belief–as has been the case, more or less, in Europe over the last several hundred years. The notion of religion as “just” about belief is a direct inheritance from the intra-Christian squabbling over issues like transubstantiation that led to just over a century of war–and most of the historians I know point to the damage those wars did as a major contributing factor in our collective decision to try not to take those belief questions too terribly seriously. And thus, eventually, we arrive at the birth of the secular age.

I actually started writing this a couple weeks ago, but kept putting it down because I kept struggling to remember what point I was trying to make (it doesn’t help that I’ve been battling a lingering respiratory infection since June). And then Interfaith Family posted this article by Yossi Beilin, calling for “secular conversion” to Judaism: a way of constructing a formal relationship between an individual and the Jewish community that gives them all the communal and identity stuff, none of the belief or practice issues. Which on the one hand is fine and sensible: it’s completely normal for individuals to feel close kinships with, and seek to enter, communities that they weren’t born into, and plenty of other communities have procedures by which this transfer may be accomplished–such as, for example, citizenship ceremonies (yes, citizenship is at least as much about communal identity as is religion).

On the other hand, though, I’m afraid I don’t buy it. It’s not that I don’t think that there is something deeply problematic with the way conversion is handled in Judaism–though I note that Dr. Beilin is largely motivated by cases that are particular to Israel, where the right-wing Orthodox Rabbinate’s chokehold on all religious matters makes issues about who is and is not Jewish enough considerably more fraught than they are out here in the rest of the world. It’s just that I don’t think that the solution to complex questions about identity and belonging and how deeply you have to integrate into a culture before you can be part of that culture can be addressed with a streamlined membership procedure, and I emphatically disagree that a secular conversion mechanism would help Judaism to realise itself as “more than just a religion.” It wouldn’t even really introduce a new variety of Judaism, which is already fairly belief- and, in spite of what the Israeli Rabbinate would like the rest of us to think, practice-neutral. Instead, it would just stuff all the belief and practice issues into a box, to be opened only when suitable explanations for mysterious ancient relics are required.

The problem with this is that it is precisely those issues of belief and practice that make Judaism religiously distinct–which I realise sounds like a tautology, but bear with me just a moment longer. A Jewish atheist is still Jewish because their atheism is constructed in reaction to a specifically Jewish God; they disbelieve in particular claims about the nature of the world which arise from the Jewish tradition, where a Muslim atheist will disbelieve in claims about the nature of the world which arise from the Islamic tradition, and a Christian atheist disbelieves specifically Christian claims (most movement atheists are Christian). I don’t believe that the Angel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammed, or that Jesus died and rose again, but that lack of belief on my part is value-neutral; both beliefs are, to me, what William James would term a dead option: they have no claim on me, and therefore cost me nothing to reject. A person who simply happens to not believe that the commandments of Torah have any claim on them may be any number of things, but they are not a secular Jew–or at least not simply by virtue of their lack of belief; a person who very specifically rejects the idea that the commandments of Torah have a claim on them is, precisely by virtue of their disbelief. Whatever other issues of identity or custom or belonging go into distinguishing members of one group from another, they grow up around the core of differences in belief (or disbelief).

When we lose sight of that core, we don’t become more rational; instead, we lose sight of our irrationality. Instead of differences in belief, we see difference as inherent. We give up religion in favour of tribalism. Absent a clear understanding of how belief operates in our worldview, we are at risk of making the same irritating error as the archaeological displays I grumbled about on Orkney, and simply ascribing a belief function to every difficult, mysterious, or undesirable phenomenon–and in so doing, excuse ourselves from confronting other factors which may contribute to whatever undesirable circumstance we find ourselves in. We risk, in short, forgetting what matches look like.