The Community of Religion

PZ attacks religious beliefs with his usual angry panache:

Religion is a bad thing. It encourages people to believe in things that are not true. It really is as simple as that; we'd be better off if people valued truth over comfortable delusions.

Unlike most Americans, I don't believe in angels, the devil or the possibility of eternal salvation. I think Armageddon has more to do with nuclear proliferation than the Book of Revelations. But attacking the ideas of religion fails to address the real value of religion. People don't go to church because they want to read the same old fantastical stories again and again. Even the Sermon on the Mount gets old after a few recitations. They go to church (or temple or the mosque or whatever) because they want to be part of a community. Here's Frances Fitzgerald in the latest New Yorker, writing about the growth of megachurches in New England:

Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, who has written extensively on the breakdown of social networks, and Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, have both described the megachurch as one of the most successful community-building institutions of modern times. Almost all megachurches have cafes of food courts, bookstores, sports facilities, child care, youth programs, and small groups, which can include anything from Bible-study classes to affinity groups for motorcyclists. Most of the larger churches have an array of counselling programs and support groups for those suffering from divorce, depression, addiction or the death of a loved on. Many, including Faith Church, offer classes in how to manage family finances, and many have funds to help church members through financial crises. All have opportunities for community service, and many have drama groups, arts classes, and high-tech recording equipment. In other words, megachurches offer just about everything the newly arrived suburbanite can't find at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

PZ's critique of religion assumes that humans are natural epistemologists, interested above all in the truth of our beliefs. But most of us just aren't that interested in truth. We are social animals. We just want to belong.

Update: So before the comments get too rowdy and harsh, let me be clear: I'm not endorsing the megachurch community. I'm simply pointing out that, for many people, it fills an important societal void. (It's not an accident that the biggest megachurches are in exurbs.) If I had my way, people would find less solidarity in religion and more solidarity in art. The ballet or play or rock concert would be our church. (For me, at least, seeing Bruce Springsteen live is probably the closest I'll ever come to a "religious" experience, at least as defined by William James.) We wouldn't need God to bring us together, since our own imaginative creations could do the job. Hopelessly naive? You bet. But if I can't indulge my utopian daydreams on a blog post, then what is blogging for?

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I think there's a lot to be said for the loss of the commons in American life - I think your analysis is missing one key factor. It's FREE. Not that they don't rake in the cash at megachurches, it's part of the driving force that had created them. It gets folk through the door, however, through the aggregation of social spaces (bookstores, cafes, etc.) that are free to enter, relatively public for those who are members, and with little pressure to buy compared with many corporate alternatives. On top of it, the implied shared social beliefs create acceptable rules of introduction such that, unlike at a chain book retailer, a person might feel more comfortable and safe speaking with a stranger. Our public sphere currently lacks models of tactful social discourse (thanks, GOP!), and I think that makes corporate surrogates for public space more anxiety provoking.

So what do we have in a mega-church?

1. A free modern form of the public commons
2. Social norms of politeness and corgiality allowing for the discussion of meaningful topics, and
3. The ability to belong.

The secular world's closest comparison might be in the student center's/union's of some college campuses, though the climates vary and access is only free for a priveleged few. Perhaps the best outreach researchers can do is to participate in their community, join bookclubs, give free talks at libraries, and when possible, vote against the increasing privatization of every square inch of land in town.

By Matthew D. Skinta (not verified) on 01 Dec 2007 #permalink

Some subjects, like IQ and religion, evoke a lot of interest.


I wonder why that is.

"We just want to belong."

Are you of the body?

We want to belong to a community. That is very true. But that is no excuse for encouraging growth of a nonsensical belief at the expense of a developing one.

It's similar to the "we are hard-wired/evolved to want religion" argument. It's also common. But it's also rubbish.

Because you are right about needing to be part of a group. We are social animals. And we form models in our heads of things that we cannot see, like how did things come to be, but those models are not all religious. The essence of any religion is surely that certain models are fixed by revelation and hence immune to change. Is that right?

Churchgoers want to be a part of a community, but what they have together is a counterfeit community. They don't really know any of those other people. What they do hear are only the good things -- Frank got a promotion, Susie is starting college, and, yes, we did get a new car, we got a good price for it, and we love it.

It's always a complete surprise when something goes badly wrong with one of the congregation -- a drunk driving arrest, a murder, a violent fight, one of the kids arrested for selling drugs, losing a job, losing the house, the car getting repossessed, an arrest for child pornography or rape. The people will all say they are shocked, how somebody was such a good churchgoer, strong in their faith, so how could this happen?

Churchgoers keep secret all the things in their lives they're not proud of, and those they are proud of that they know others would vilify them for. This secrecy is undermining and destructive.

In a real community, such as a family, most secrets are shared. In a real community there has to be openness, honesty, frankness.

Deceit, as a primary policy, is how churchgoers counterfeit a community, so that they can delude themselves into feeling they have lots of friends, while secure in the knowledge that none of those other people know the family or personal secrets.

OK, we want to belong to a community, but why to a dumb one?
Why not build smart communities rather than stick to superstition as social cement?

Any brights around? :-)

They go to church (or temple or the mosque or whatever) because they want to be part of a community.

Unfortunately, it's a community in which they reinforce with each other how they are so superior to those not in the community. They're "saved" and the non-community is not. They "talk to God" while the non-community talks to Satan. They are "moral" while the non-community is not. They are "God's chosen people" and the non-community is not.

You don't get that with the "community" of stamp-collectors.

I've updated the post, just to make it clear that I'm not endorsing the religious form of community. I've even proposed my own naive alternative...

"OK, we want to belong to a community, but why to a dumb one?"

People can and have formed communities around almost any connection. Traditionally this was often determined by geography and ethnicity, but also religions, political parties and movements, business and avocational connections, and so on. And of course they aren't mutually exclusive. One of the features of the human tendencies to form communities is the tendency to resent or fear competing communities. And then the resentment or fear of competing communities can be a community-forming connection in itself (the Klan, etc.). So the urge to form communities is not necessarily an unalloyed good (but then, what is?). So, yeah, I'd have to agree that some communities can definitely be suspect; just forming a community is not by itself any real justification.

I think it's important to differentiate the human needs of Community and togetherness, emotional outlet, political organization, or method of explaining and influencing the world around us, from religion as simply one potential source of the above.

In many ways, the human needs that religion has traditionally served have been supplanted by superior methods. We have clubs and special interest groups for community and togetherness, look to psychiatry and psychopharmacology for emotional help, rely on a constitutional based democracy instead of a bible-based theocracy, we look to science to explain the world around us, and use it to generate technology that can manipulate the world around us far more effectively than prayer could ever hope to accomplish.

To say that religion serves a unique need in human beings is simply not true, for once you explain the human need which is fulfilled by church, you can point to secular organizatons that do the job just as well, or perhaps even better.

From my conversations with religious people, I have come to the conclusion that community is a huge part of it, and so is comfort of taking refuge in irrational belief--the very thing we non-believers can't get our minds around. It's like a warm fuzzy blanket (call it faith) that believers can cover themselves with whenever others come at them with the facts and the sheer "force of the stronger argument," as Habermas so aptly put it.
I don't think anyone can convince the holder of irrational beliefs of any kind that he or she is wrong, any more than a religious believer can convince someone (like me, for example)who thinks that the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" has a better, more complex answer than "God." In other words, the irrationality of it all (the rapture, if you will) is the very thing that attracts them. That and a seemingly simple set of moral beliefs so they know what to do and don't have to get involved in thinking their way through tough issues. That's a little unfair, maybe, but there is something to the idea that religious believers want to be part of a community of people who think and hence will act just like they do. But maybe we all want that on some level.

The only megachurch I need is the Providence Geeks and potentially DC401. DC401 is Rhode Island's DefCon group and they're looking for 20 angels $50 a month to develop a lab space for projects. I suggested they shoot a little higher and go for 50 angels. That would raise the monthly take from $1,000 to $2,500, allowing a fund for equipment, tools, and even scrap metal, plexi, tubing, piping, etc. for people who want to build a RepRap, etc.

At Providence Geek meetings we get to hear talks by the up and comers in the technology world, in addition to hands on stuff like the Bare Bones Board assembly table that was setup at the last meetup the day before Thanksgiving.

Of course I ended up being more teacher than assembler since I know how to get around the soldering mistakes that people can make, particularly first timers.

That's more than enough social for me, except it's all technology. Oh well, but I don't need to have a god message included.

Re Bruce Springsteen as art:
You know what they say:
In French, you sigh, roll your eyes and say "Les gouts et les couleurs..."
In English, you say "There's no disputing taste."
To which I would add, artistic taste IS a bit like religious faith.
Not that I personally like everything he has done, but Bruce Springsteen is an accomplished artist who puts on a pretty fine live show. At least he used to. I haven't seen one in many years. But take the time at least to listen to some of his stuff--from the 70's, for example.

For me, at least, seeing Bruce Springsteen live is probably the closest I'll ever come to a "religious" experience, . . .

Now that's what I call a "Leap of Faith."

(Springsteen fans will get the reference.)

I don't think the draw of religion is community per se, but community that confers a sense of inherent superiority and reinforces delusions. Why are fundamentalist megachurches outgrowing their liberal and moderate counterparts? Because a slick salesman raving inanely about the imminence of the apocalypse and ensuring that you'll be raptured into heaven before it is much more exciting than joining your neighbors for prayer and breakfast every Sunday.

The problem with religion is that it can have a profound effect on peoples cognitive dissonance. (irony meter) Problems arise from there.

By Gene Goldring (not verified) on 01 Dec 2007 #permalink

Re: leap of faith.
Kierkegaard fans will also get the reference!
Agree wholeheartedly with Gene Goldring. This is why it can be such a drag to talk to "deeply" religious people.
Agree too with Tyler DiPietro about the appeal of superiority in religious communities.

"Because a slick salesman raving inanely about the imminence of the apocalypse and ensuring that you'll be raptured into heaven....."

That would be refering to bible fundamentalists, but there is also a type of religionist who tells you that God is your best friend who wants you to succeed in life, have a ton of money and wants to give you untold blessings....someone like Joel Osteen.

(Interestingly, this type of thinking started during the enlightenment when it was said that God created men with certain unalienable rights. Before then, most people had the right to do what they were told.) But I digress...

This guy has cobbled together enough religion and feel good psychology to have built another typt of megachurch which doesn't exactly qualify as Christian, but bears the cross and people are buying it hook, line and sinker.

People want to believe there is a purpose in life beyond existence and that God is interested in their life.

Didn't someone try to start up an organized secular "religion" after the French Revolution?
Perhaps without the imminent threat of the Guillotine cutting off the project, reviving such a project might be warranted?

Re attempt at organized secular religion after the French Revolution: I think the French Revolution was an attempt at just that.

I would love to see a study done about the relative religiosity of suburbanites versus those who live in traditional neighborhoods which foster community by their design. I suspect that, thanks to our obsession with private property rights and an inability to plan collaboratively, not only are we lucky recipients of sprawl, but also increased religious belief as a side effect. Bleh!

Jonah, you're defending the value of community, not religion. Communities can form around almost any shared practice or belief without resorting to religion.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 01 Dec 2007 #permalink

Despite being an adamant non-supporter of organized religion, I understood what Jonah was saying here and thought it an entirely valid observation.

As for the various comments asserting that it's possible to have the same level of community without religion: Where? No, really. Cradle-to-grave community is increasingly difficult to come by, and these megachurches provide one-stop shopping for it. True, there are an Ark-load of issues in the surrounding organization and culture, but in order to confront them on those fronts, it is also necessary to acknowledge where they shine. Of course, all that glitters is not gold, but even the illusion of community is very powerful.

I think the KKK provides a pretty good community function too.

Below is a quote from a previous comment; it shows typical religious ego-centric blindness [unless it was meant to be sarcastic?]. He exposes the same qualities in him/herself as she is complaining about with the non-religious:
eg.: "how they are so superior to those not in the community". Isn't that exactly what Ahcuah is doing?

And also, there we have one of the big problems - communities, especially religious ones, create an "us VS them" state of mind. Breaking down the barriers to equality and inclusion is our best hope for peace and happiness, and religion builds those barriers.

One more thing Ahcuah - atheists are NOT less moral than the religious!! This has been proven over and over in serious studies. I know for myself that being an atheist actually makes me think about my behaviors being moral so that I do not give the religious people any reason to hate me.
How moral is it to be indoctrinating children into a particular religion before the age of consent? How moral is it to be circumcising them? Plus so many wars, inquisitions, burning witches, sex abuses and so on - all done by religious people, proving that religion does not create a moral person!

We are all in this life together, lets not divide ourselves up. OH religious ones - give up your false beliefs and join the community of humanity.

" Unfortunately, it's a community in which they reinforce with each other how they are so superior to those not in the community. They're "saved" and the non-community is not. They "talk to God" while the non-community talks to Satan. They are "moral" while the non-community is not. They are "God's chosen people" and the non-community is not.

You don't get that with the "community" of stamp-collectors."

Posted by: Ahcuah

By Bruce Delado (not verified) on 02 Dec 2007 #permalink

Re: previous post.
I think the key point about morality and religion is that you don't need religion in order to think about the moral implications of your behavior and act accordingly. You don't need the idea of God behind morality to explain what's right and what's not in a given context, and as an explanation (i.e., God will punish you if you don't do x) it makes the motivation and sincerity of the actor fairly questionable. The only thing he or she can really fall back on is that God is, well, God, all powerful and all knowing, etc. etc. etc., and that if you don't do what He says, you will go to hell.
At the risk of sparking controversy by the mere mention of a name, Christopher Hitchens makes this point very well in his recent book. Going back to a much earlier, but equally eloquent, example of the same reasoning, see Blaise Pascal (Pascal's wager).

I read all of these comments with interest. So many of them don't describe my experience with religion. I have to admit I've never been to a mega church. I belong to a small ELCA Lutheran church housed in an old brick building with wooden floors and pews. The chandeliers in the sanctuary (if you can call them that) are made from the fenders of old Model As. In the depression this church community lost it's mortgage and came together with whatever they had to rebuild, now we like the reminder and don't really want to change it. We don't have a food court, but we do have food closet where food is collected for donation to the food bank of the Rockies. There are folks of all ages, sizes, sexual orientations, and colors at this church. On any given Sunday we go through our rituals (it's known as a liturgy) and for some of us that brings us closer to those who have come before us. I feel a sense of history, which I find comforting. The pastor preaches a sermon, where he tries to interpret the readings (three passages from the Bible) into a relevant commentary for our modern lives. It's a wonderful time for reflection and thought. Afterwards we often drink coffee and eat cookies and talk about the sermon, did the pastor get it right or was he all wet today. Sure we share the mundane details of our lives but we also spend time as a community doing our best to interpret the world around us. We listen to each other, learn from each other and help each other live lives that we want to believe are good.
I guess I could stay at home and do this myself. Or maybe I could go to a Bruce Springsteen concert and try to do it there. I guess I would rather figure out the sticky moral parts of life with a community. And I don't know of any other community that provides this sort of opportunity except my church. A place solely dedicated to exploring of the moral life by the lay person.
Hmm, I guess it's kinda like this blog. Someone presents an idea to think about and then some more people bat the idea around and try to make sense of it. And then we all go home and live our lives hoping to be a little more enlightened.

By amybuilds (not verified) on 02 Dec 2007 #permalink

You mention that if you had your way, "people would find less solidarity in religion and more solidarity in art. The ballet or play or rock concert would be our church."But art does not substitute for religion. Being cultured does not guarentee one has high moral values. Neither does religion. But religion has us look at our own behavior and recommends ways to improve. The stories do get repeated ad nauseum, perhaps because we often forget their meaning and need to revisit them. My point is, religion has value because it directly teaches morality. Art is wonderful, but doesn't function the same way religion does, and is not a "better" type of religion.

Amybuild's description of her church reminds me of the churches I saw in Sweden. Tiny, simple, often with little wooden ships hung from the ceiling, and always with windows looking out on the world. They were built as havens in a sometimes hostile world, rather than as temples of worship, and definitely served to bring isolated people together. As she points out, kind of like this blog.
To Joe I would say that religion has not cornered the market on having us "look at our own behavior" etc. Art can do that as well. Religion certainly has value for its followers, but it is not the only direct teacher of morality. And probably not the best one.

For anyone interested, one of the most thoughtful treatments of this subject I've yet come across was written a few years ago: "Skeptics and True Believers" by former Boston Globe science writer--and now blogger--Chet Raymo.

Friendly pendantic note to Jonah: It's called the book of Revelation, no "s." In Greek it is called Apokalyptos.
While identifying with the viewpoints of a number of posters in these comments, I note that some of them seem to be rather categorical in rejecting the validity of religion. If you haven't experienced it from the inside, you really don't "know" in the truest sense. I would venture that many, many churchgoes don't take their church's bedrock teachings literally or even seriously to the extent that they contain fantastic claims. People need to belong and be sustained. A rock concert cannot deliver that. People need to feel a part of a greater narrative as they search for meaning, and religious identity provides tradition and continuity.

Cannot speak for other non-religious people who have posted here, but for myself can only say I have experienced religion from the "inside," as you say, and nonetheless have ruled it out as a satisfying source of tradition, continuity or sustenance for me. I was raised Catholic, and was an active member of my Catholic community, and while a graduate student (in philosophy) had ample opportunity to study the history and teachings of religion. Have read Aquinas, Duns Scotus and Pascal. Have studied the Eastern tradition, the Western tradition, and so on.
It is true that many who are anti-religion (not my case, although I have some serious problems with what has been done over time in the name of religion; I am non-religious) create a straw man that is easy to attack and tear down. It is a one-dimensional caricature. Personally, I try to avoid that kind of thinking. However, I am suspicious of sentences that start with "People need...," with the possible exception of this one: People need different things, and find sustenance and a sense of belonging in different things. How do you know what a rock concert can or cannot deliver to someone else in terms of "that oceanic feeling" of belonging to something bigger than oneself?
What many in these posts object to, if I have read correctly, is the claim on the part of some religious people that only religion gives life meaning, provides a satisfying sense of community, etc. Why do some religious people seem hell-bent on asserting this? Why can they not accept that there are varieties of meaningful experience, and that a non-religious one is alos valid in the highest sense?

Thank you for a thoughtful, actually quite beautiful, response, and I mean this sincerely. You are right to take issue with my sweeping statement about what "people need." You wrote:
'People need different things, and find sustenance and a sense of belonging in different things. How do you know what a rock concert can or cannot deliver to someone else in terms of "that oceanic feeling" of belonging to something bigger than oneself?' As a former protestant believer and rock concert-goer, current attendant at catholic mass, and person sympathetic to all of us living the human condition, I agree with you. Often as a teenager I thought about how attending a rock concert was reminiscent of a revival meeting. The neural circuitry that gets stimilated is the same. At such events maybe we feel like part of a superorganism, which is a personally enlarging phenomenon?

There are spiritual currents that run through Patanjali, the anabaptists, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Merton, Chuang-Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, and the list goes on. And I'd be happy to elaborate the connections. I would observe that often discussions involving religion really comes down to a discussion of which cultural and intellectual conceptualizations or categories one is ensconced in or advocating for. Personally, for instance, images of ganesh and fugen leave me unmoved, but then I don't come from a hindu or buddhist tradition.

Going to catholic mass one can sometimes spend time with family, see a few friends, absorb the beauty of the stained glass, pray, shake hands, sing, and otherwise open up to a sense of transcendance--without buying into the doctrine of the church for one second. But one could just as soon do this without all the props, so to speak, in a zendo, in a forest, or in front of a Thomas Cole painting--the possibilities are innumerable. It's in the categorical rejection or embrace where, in my view, the difficulty lies. And if you really diminish the intellectual importance of categories, or come to see the whole world as sacred, then it is possible to find comfort and feel at home in the world wherever you are. As Suzuki-roshi is credited with having said, "The world is its own magic." Cheers.

The only response to what you have written that seems quite right is "Amen."
I think we would find many points of convergence and some interesting points of difference in a discussion of religion and/or philosophy. I too despair of categorical thinking, which leads to the opposite of that oceanic feeling--what you aptly refer to as "the personally enlarging phenomenon." I like that!

It certainly fills an instinctive role in tems of community, as well as amygdala-temporal lobe centered emotional satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with that. But the certainty and irrationality of limbic emotion, without cortex driven analytical logic can cause major problems. It would be nice if the faithfull were conscious of that, however, rather than be the mercy of those very human tendencies under the indefensible presumption that it is the *WILL OF GOD* and therefore indisputable. The last part of that is the crux of the problems religion causes, which we cant ignore in the modern world.

Conventional religion posesses qualities both like other activities which can satisfy religious wiring. and unlike rock and roll or human-nature interactions, sports or , arts and academics, conventional religion is often politically proselytic and absolute in its assumptions; the 'absolute' nature of certain sports or music devotions notwithstanding. I.e. you like 'The Boss', I like Nightwish but I dont consider it *gods will* to make eveyone a Nightwish fan or be eternally dammed. Nor do I demand it of my political choices.

So the anachronistic side of religion is not in its social or neuroanatomical functions, its in its political and cosmological functions. Yet our neuro-circuits are not all wored to be able to seperate these nuances effectively. in some of us it is easy, in others a neuroanatomical difficulty at best.

In the days most of our modern organized religioins were conceived, there was no seperate entity of science or art or religion, they were interwoven and controlled by the state or tribe. The beginnings of separation were interestingly formed in the very religions we inherited and due to the flux of populations and resulting exchange of ideas in those regions. Judaism grew out of a displaced populace in Babylon but from Canaanite polytheistic religious tradition overlayed with an obscure form of Nabataen tribal monolatry from the desert of NW Arabia.

The flux of that region coupled with the anomalous and unprecedented monotheism would engender a creed that eventually, 500 & 1200 years later respectively, spawned two more, all of whom would always create a kingdon out of its church and pit it for or against the socially juxtaposed political and artistic/sceintific influences. Native religions or Europe, America, Africa, Asia never had something like this. I know this is simplified history but any more on the three faiths of monotheism, and Buddhism and Hinduism, Shinto, shamanism, etc. would be superfluous, as this paragraph may even turn out to be.

So the skipping ahead puts our modern influential religions of christianity and islam in a political power role first but one still called upon by adherents to fulfill natural religious needs. Their political absolutism, proselyitc character and insistent antagonism with measurable and definite laws of nature will continue to be a problem until they accept that they are overstepping their bounds as soon as they do something directly to manipulate the techno-complexity or even basic knowledge gaining apparatus of a society without recognizing their own naturally-limited and relativistically constructed function within that society first.

Is this a defense of anti-religious hyper-Faustian a-morality in the service of any and all possibilities in *science*? No. Is it a recommendation that religious people know why they are drawn to religion based on neuroanatomy, and an insistence that they accept the methodology of scientific inquiry regarding physical prosesses and observations? Yes.

By the Big Conductor (not verified) on 03 Dec 2007 #permalink

please forgive the numerous typos.. wired, not wored..etc

By the Big Conductor (not verified) on 03 Dec 2007 #permalink

Eh, I think the more fundamental cause of religion is fear of the unknown and its attendant helplessness. Anybody here who says he/she doesn't fear death and what could possibly happen after is lying. That shared fear is what draws people to then form the communities to deal with it.

By Dr. Feelgood (not verified) on 03 Dec 2007 #permalink

I can understand fear of the process of dying; but not fear of death.

"But if I can't indulge my utopian daydreams on a blog post, then what is blogging for?"

Amen, Brother.