Alain de Botton’s new Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (Pantheon, 2012) is a refreshing change from Richard Dawkin or the late Christopher Hitchens, who have been fervent in their atheism—noisy proselytizers for the no-god cause. People who insist that religion is a useless vestige of old ways of thinking—a cultural appendix—entertain me because the reality of religion is so much against them. I am not a believer myself, nor are the people I’m closest to, but a lot of people like religion. When they do, they generally like it a lot.
De Botton’s book is really about the search for community, the loss of which he ascribes to the decline of religion. His premise is that we need to create secular rituals and social structures that will do us good in the ways that religious rituals and structures do, or did. He’s not the first person to suggest this. I was reminded of an article from the Coevolution Quarterly that got me thinking about what one might call the collateral benefits of belief. Anne Herbert writes, “we don’t have as many friends as we would if we were born sooner because we’ve renounced most institutions and are left with making friends at work or by inviting people we’ve met casually out to lunch.” Here’s an extract from an article she published in 1978 (wow, that’s a long time ago):
In fact, a lot of this amounts to saying that I miss church. You non-church-goers should know that Church As I Knew It, in the middle of the road, was nothing like Elmer Gantry. No one cried, and if you pushed people on what they believed, a lot of them were more vague than dogmatic – something about God existing, something about Jesus being special, something about modified altruism being better than pure selfishness. A lot of what was happening was people with lots of non-religious values in common (political conservatism, family life) getting together once a week to hang out. It was a nice place to hang out. If you didn’t like grownups, you could volunteer to hang out with children without having to actually have any. If you didn’t like big crowds, you could volunteer for the cleanup or preparation committee and hang out with other people who didn’t like crowds and sort of liked shit work in a way, like the volunteers at the Jamboree. Also you could find out if you wanted to be friends with people without doing something artificial like going out to lunch.What my few friends and Tail have in common is that we don’t have as many friends as we would if we were born sooner because we’ve renounced most institutions and are left with making friends at work or by inviting people we’ve met casually out to lunch. I find that un-ideal because it makes my stomach hurt and because if you take someone to lunch you just get each other’s stories, but if you set up folding chairs together, you find out what people are really like and if you really like them.
Sixties leftovers have never really built a low-key institution to hang out together at, and make friends at and casually bullshit about what to do next at. I think that’s partly because compulsory education crippled us. We were in communities organized by grownups for so long we never learned to.organize our own. What happened to the sixties a lot is that everyone graduated from college and didn’t see each other much. The clean grounds and lovely volunteers at the Jamboree reminded me that much of what people had in common then they have in common now. If they met, casually, regularly, they might have fun and carry it on it was, in a whole new way.
I was surprised by how little the speakers had to say that was new, and it made me think that the newness would be found in the crowd, if they talked to each other long enough, if they lived in a neighborhood together instead of meeting once at a one-time event.
What I think would be good would be some regularly scheduled low-key place where people could meet, maybe hear a hippie sermon about how given our beliefs, we’re better than everyone else, or about how give our beliefs, we’re totally hypocritical and aren’t doing shit to live them out. (Those are the 2 kinds of sermons, and we could use them both.) We could sing a few songs, have a few pot luck suppers and accidentally possibly remake the revolution. I myself wouldn’t do anything to make all this happen, but if it happened, I would set up folding chairs, I would write the newsletter, I would call up people to remind them to bring food to the potluck.
When I think of religion and community, I remember my time at the California branch of a Switzerland-based Christian community called L’Abri (“the shelter”), and at its English branch in a village in Hampshire. The English village church has a magic about it, perfectly captured at the end of the movie Mrs. Miniver. The Second World War has begun, and the village gathers after a night of bombing in the shattered church. Sun streams in through the roof and through the broken stained-glass windows. The congregation stands with hymn books in hand and sings. “We are together,” that picture says to me, “We are one people, we are here for one another, in sickness and in health, in war and in peace, till death do us part.” That is community.
I agree with Herbert and with de Botton that without church we lack something important. I see it in simple terms: when people go to church once a week, there’s an occasion when (1) everyone is together and welcome, and (2) everyone puts aside daily strife and worries to focus on something outside themselves, on hopes and values that go beyond the material, and (3) they are reminded of shared hopes and values and common purpose.
For another perspective on the consequences of belief, and the need for community, we can turn to a book on world history by a father and son, both eminent world historians. The chapters are jointly authored but there are two conclusions to The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History (Norton, 2003). The father, William H. McNeill, author of the National Book Award winner The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, focuses on community in his conclusions, saying that our future depends on finding new kinds of communities to replace those of the past:
Either the gap between cities and villages will somehow be bridged by renegotiating the terms of symbiosis, and/or differently constructed primary communities will arise to counteract the tangled anonymity of urban life. Religious sects and congregations are the principal candidates for this role. But communities of belief must somehow insulate themselves from unbelievers, and that introduces frictions, or active hostilities, into the cosmopolitan web. How then sustain the web and also make room for life-sustaining primary communities?
Ironically, therefore, to preserve what we have, we and our successors must change our ways by learning to live simultaneously in a cosmopolitan web and in various and diverse primary communities. How to reconcile such opposites is the capital question for our time and probably will be for a long time to come. (William H. McNeill and J. R. McNeill 2003, pp. 326<N>327).
More to come on religion in the months ahead. It is important to an understanding of community, and understanding community will help us to see the religious experience more clearly, and perhaps more sympathetically. I also think I can explain some things that a life-long atheist like de Botton just won’t understand because I have been a believer myself, and spent a lot of time around believers. That’s in addition to publishing a vast array of material on world religions written by some of the world’s leading religious scholars.
PS: Three people to read if you want to learn about about religion and community: Robert Bellah, Parker Palmer, and Martin Marty.