Monday, August 28, 2006

Yes, Religion Does Have a Purpose

Amy Alkon, a militant atheist, writes of a woman who complained about college Christian groups that threw pizza socials. "Of course they threw pizza socials," I want to say. "College students like pizza socials. That's half the point of a group like that. It's an excuse to have pizza socials."

I'm not a religious person. But I'm often frustrated by atheism's most public figures; religion has done a great deal of good, and they don't like to admit it. Amy Alkon is usually such a person, and even though I typically agree with her I find her a bit shrill whenever the subject comes up. But today she gets it right. Religion is as common as it is not because the Pope is a nefarious hypnotist with a supernatural ability to compel us to submit to his beliefs, but because religion serves a number of real purposes in most people's lives.

The most obvious benefit is psychological; belief in god gives an order to the universe that makes a lot of people feel more secure about their lives. I don't need religion to balance me; I trust that everything will turn out well, and try to make it so, but don't need god to keep me from freaking out. But if your church helps you get through the day, put in that extra bit of effort, or just generally makes your life happier and better, more power to you.

But a lot of atheists miss the wholly practical advantages of belonging to a church: a social network. Church socials give you a place to hang out and meet people in your area (and things to do with them)—something that lots of twentysomethings, especially in the cities, say is becoming harder and harder to find. Without her church my grandmother would spend her days sitting at home watching the shopping network on TV; instead she has a circle of friends, places to go, and things to do so she doesn't get terminally bored. Church is an opportunity for business networking as well, putting parishioners in contact with all sorts of people from the community whom they might want to talk to. It's a convenient structure to organize large-scale charitable activities. And it can be a place to turn if you have a run of bad luck and need some help to tide you over.

Churches these days aren't doing as good a job at a lot of these as they used to, largely because we don't let them. The important part of a social network is the 'social' part; as fewer people participate, whether from secularization or other reasons, the networks become less valuable and people have less reason to join in. But we don't yet have a good replacement. In the long run I suspect the internet will provide; as the social networking sites figure out how to create interfaces that actually allow their users to network socially, they will replicate many of the benefits that churches used to provide in abundance.

But many atheist spokespeople remind me of G K Chesterton's comment on overambitious reformers:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

When someone like Richard Dawkins (a very bright man whom I much admire) calls religion a virus and explains that it serves no purpose and is actively harmful, he alienates the majority of Americans who know that their religion benefits them. The secularist spokemen won't be taken seriously until they can admit that religious organizations benefit their members, and find some other way to provide those benefits.

And that's why I think Amy is basically right when she says we should have Atheist organizations. Not because atheism needs to be a religion, but because people like to have groups that can throw the pizza parties. Form a club for atheists to hang out, chat, meet members of the opposite sex, and go on camping trips, and a lot of them will love to join. It's really all about the pizza.


Anonymous Stevo Darkly said...

Wow, good post. Nice insights. Too often a nonreligious person -- or at least the kind of nonreligious person who feels aroused to comment about this in public -- seems to believe that religions are bizarre aberrant and useless organizations imposed on human beings by some malevolent outside force. When an atheist declares, "Religion has done only harm to the world and no good, and we would do well to abolish it, or at least outgrow it as soon as possible" -- as, alas, many people I like and respect have declared -- I can only conclude that this is a statement of hugely blind ignorance. Your Chesterton quote captures the problem perfectly, I think.

Of course, this gives me something to think about. Because I am a religious person who, politically, happens to be an anarcho-capitalist: I believe the State is both unnecessary and immoral, and we should abolish it, or at least outgrow it as soon as possible.

But I cannot deny that the State has its uses. Personally, I think the State arose as a solution to an information problem: as a way to coordinate the enforcement of behaviorial norms during a period of history when population density was relatively high and the state of information technology was relatively low. The anarchic means of enforcing norms -- reputation and reciprocity -- didn't work so well once people started living in cities. But now, I think, info tech has caught up, and the essential functions of the State can be acccomplished by non-State means.

Similarly, if atheists want to do away with religion, they will have to come up with non-religious ways to serve the same needs that religion serves. But first, that means acknowledging that religion does serve needs.

Of course, the trick then would be to avoid simply replacing traditional religions with a new synthetic mythology (in the manner of New Ageism, neo-paganism, Marxism, Scientology, etc.) that simply replicates the objectionable features of religion (e.g., irrationalism, power-mongering) in a new guise.

... just as anarchist must find ways to replace the State with institutions that won't end up becoming States themselves.

September 07, 2006 12:04 AM  
Blogger Jadagul said...

Stevo, that's a really good point. Hadn't occurred to me that this could apply to anarchism, too. Of course, you've met Chesterton's burden: you believe you know what purpose the state serves, and argue that we don't need that any more. I can disagree with you (and I do), but I don't think you're saying anything silly.

And I agree that we need to find ways to replace the needs religion serves. This post was largely about the practical purposes; and as I said, I think social networking software is advancing so it can do a lot of that (am I making the same argument about religion that you did about the state?). The psychological benefits are meat for a whole other post; for now I'll just say that I think we can get a lot of those benefits without many of the (what I consider) more unreasonable trappings of religion. I suppose I do have a religion, of sorts; it's creed is, "I'm a decent person, and everything will work out."

Finally, as a side note that didn't come up in the post, I think Objectivism is essentially an attempt at a secular replacement for religion. Unfortunately, I think they jettisoned the belief that had the least real impact on much of anything (really, you could include some creator-being without changing anything of the rest), but kept a lot of the superstructure of organized religion that causes the most problems.

September 08, 2006 1:01 AM  

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