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Jewish World Review March 12, 1999 /24 Adar 5759

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Traditional religions offer optimism to adherents

( FEELING CYNICAL ABOUT CURRENT EVENTS and pessimistic about the future? Ever wonder why, in spite of research "telling" us that crime is down and prosperity is up, more and more of us, at younger and younger ages, are depressed and creating a booming anti-depressant pill and herb market? Why, in this time of incredible technology that makes our lives easier, of medicines and hygiene that let us live longer, and with the virtual freedom to go anywhere and do anything, are we so unhappy?

In a recent newspaper Q&A with University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, renowned for his work on optimism, he was asked which religions seemed to be most optimistic, and therefore have a positive influence. His answer was stunning in its refutation of the prevalent negative notions about formal religions: "In our study, we looked at 11 major religions in America and how hopeful and optimistic the adherents were. We looked at the level of optimism in the stories the children were told, as well as in the liturgy and sermons. We found strict Calvinists, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews were the most hopeful and optimistic, while Unitarians and Reformed Jews tended to be more pessimistic. The fundamentalist religions simply seem to offer more hope for a brighter future than do the more liberal, humanistic ones."

How can that be? The liberal movements in all religions promised that great happiness and fulfillment would come from renouncing traditional rituals and observances as ancient and irrelevant. The freedom to make for oneself a designer religion better suited to individual preferences and desires, and turning G-d and religion inside out to make the feel-good sensations of "spirituality" more important than a recognition of our obligation to each other and G-d, were supposed to be the "answer."

It is an experiment that failed. Without church and synagogue, people lose the sense of connection and belonging that comes from group worship and communal experience. There is sufficient research that finds a positive correlation between worship attendance and mental and physical health, including adequately coping with life's adversities. Not only is the "message" of church and synagogue services supportive, but the investment of time and caring from fellow congregants goes a long way in helping an individual face fear, pain and loss.

Also lost in the liberalization of religion were the inspiration, education and reinforcement of ideals and values that come from regular prayer, study, worship, discussion and listening to challenging sermons. When these experiences are shared with friends and family, relationships develop a depth and strength borne of a mutual respect and commitment to commonly held ideas and behavioral standards. With such shared commitment, people feel safer with each other. This sense of safety allows for deeper intimacy, trust and caring.

It has been a long-standing slur against the religious that they are a weak lot who need the crutch of religion, the opiate of the masses. On the contrary, it takes an immense amount of strength to stand up against the prevailing immorality --- a virtual free-for-all of recreational sex, shacking up, out-of-wedlock births, casual drug use, infidelity, gossip, vulgarity and public viciousness. With the resultant destruction of families, children, society and psyches, this is less freedom than free fall.

Much scorn is leveled at those who maintain that simply because we can do something, we may choose not to out of a sense of righteousness, morality and holiness. I've lost count of how many callers can't figure out why something should be "wrong" if they think it's OK. Possible negative consequences are viewed as worth a risk when immediate gratification is available. A more strict religious foundation to one's decisions is the bridge from often selfish, impulsive acts to those that ultimately provide safety from pain and potential embarrassment, self-esteem and salvation.

Salvation is an extremely important point with respect to optimism. Life is definitely not fair. G-d is fair. G-d is compassion and justice. While some life experiences may be demoralizing, damaging or outright evil, those who have strong, G-d-centered lives have hope borne out of a relationship with G-d and their belief in ultimate justice.

With a G-d-centered life people also find meaning and purpose beyond the secular measures of success, fame, beauty and money.


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02/26/99: With power comes obligation to lead by example
02/19/99: National Prayer Breakfast inspires public servants
02/12/99: Overcoming selfishness leads us closer to human potential
02/09/99: Youth's difficult lessons make us better adults
02/02/99: Rituals, icons remind us of our obligation to G-d
01/22/99: 'Consenting adults' don't always examine consequences
01/18/99: Day care no substitute for love of mom and dad
01/08/99: Don't use others' misfortunes to build your self-image
12/31/98: Tracking HIV-infected people makes good sense
12/24/98: How can we teach ethics without defining morals?
12/18/98: Parents afraid of firm values leave their children adrift
12/11/98: Spread righteousness by refusing to accept the 'code'

©1999, Universal Press Syndicate