Saturday, May 02, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist - Defecting to Faith - NYTimes.com

[A] study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one.

I'm one of those and suppose I'm typical of most who

said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship.

But I'm not particularly sympathetic to Blow's reductivist conclusion that

As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign.

At the crudest level, why should "the nonreligious movement" have to do this job? Why don't people just visit churches, go to services, support churches that maintain the buildings and run the services, and believe whatever they please? There's a good reason for this: "the nonreligious movement" doesn't do architecture. And, for all that an increasing number of American yuppies regard themselves as Buddhists, they don't build temples.

I suppose the deeper question is that of why we don't think that visiting churches, participating in services and maintaining buildings isn't good enough. I just finished reading a great read: Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, describing the conversion of Europeans to Christianity. What did that conversion mean for the Goths and Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, Franks and Lombards and, in the end, the Wends and Lithuanians? Initially, at least, it meant little more than conformity to a practice--churchgoing and following various rules for social organization. Why don't we think it's good enough that we participate in religious practice and support the institution that makes them possible, whatever we believe?

For myself I have no interest in the Church as "community." If I had any interest in "community" I would certainly not look for it in any church. Church people are not my kind of people and I want nothing to do with them. But I love the buildings, the services and the music, and I like participating anonymously, alone in a crowd.

Alone in a crowd is my kind of "spiritual" experience--walking through a farmers' market, as I did this morning. I like people as "background." I like participating in crowd scenes where I don't have to make contact with anyone but can just appreciate them as throbbing Life. In the same way, I like going to church so long as I don't know anyone and can participate impersonally as part of that impersonal Life. I don't want anything to do with them personally and certainly don't want to be a member of the "community."

Is this really so terribly queer? I don't assume that everyone is like me. But I see no reason to assume that no one is--that no one but me has that interest in the impersonal numinous, in church buildings, services and ceremonies in which one can participate anonymously as a a mere part of the crowd, submerged in the seething mass. That seems to me the religious impulse at its core: to recognize that one's life makes no difference, that one is of no significance or worth, that in the grand scheme of things one is of absolutely no consequence.

But so much for metaphysics. Why should the "non-religious movement" pick up steam? If it does, what will it provide? Buildings? Art? Mythology?

Blow, and others who write on this, are not among us who were raised without any religion. They were ground through the regime of churchgoing and Sunday School, raised in worlds where there was an obligation to believe and those who couldn't manage it were in some sense failures or, in any case, untrustworthy.

I was brought up to believe that religion was, at best, a mechanism for keeping "uneducated people" in line and a comfort for the elderly facing death. I was taught that all religious belief was superstitious and that any interest in religion was morbid and "sick." Blow just doesn't get it, doesn't get what it is like to be brought up secular. For me, and I suspect other like me, religion is a guilty pleasure--one of those forbidden things like sex that deliver big thrills. And for me at least it isn't the believing that delivers the thrills but the buildings and services, the business of organized religion, the outward and visible signs.

I can read the handwriting on the wall. Organized religion will collapse and, I believe, we'll all be the poorer for it. Because organized religion is not a matter of doctrine or moral rules, as those who were raised with it believe, but a matter of art, architecture, mythology and ritual. For most, that has been poisoned by dogmatism and puritanism so, to the extent that they have an interest in "spirituality" they will look for it in "the non-religious movement"--which has nothing to offer.

I still don't get it. De facto churches don't require loyalty oaths and can't enforce moral commitments. There are no gatekeepers. Anyone can go to any church and enjoy the service with no questions asked. Why don't people questing for "spirituality" just do church and ignore the stupid things that clergy say--like everyone else?

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