Religion as Community

Darrell Arnold

Dr. Darrell Arnold, Professor of Philosophy

Note – My last post elicited multiple thoughtful comments from readers but I thought that Dr. Darrell Arnold’s were worth reprinting in their entirety. I have known Dr. Arnold for more than 30 years and he is a careful and conscientious thinker whose thought I highly value. Here is Dr. Arnold’s commentary followed by a brief rejoinder.

Clearly, religion has done and continues to do much harm. And most of the everyday religious dogmas should be taken no more seriously than the idea that Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. But beyond providing individual consolation, which you note, religions also provide much more. They often provide the impetus for social justice, provide individuals with a strong sense of belonging, and through spiritual direction offer something akin to analytic counseling.

Major social justice movements of the 20th century and of the present have had strong religious impulses. We can look to the movements of which Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were leaders as examples. In Miami, through obligations associated with the Catholic University where I originally worked, I became involved with a Social Justice organization that works on local (progressive) politics that is comprised almost exclusively of Justice committees of local churches, synagogues, and mosques. These congregations do provide an infrastructure for social coordination at the local (and national) level. And it appears to me that many of the adherents … derive [ a sense of purpose] from that work “being their brother’s keeper” and from the sense of community that the organizations and the collective work provide.

The non-religious often lack the social bonds, outside of family, that religious organizations can provide, and they often lack the organizational infrastructure for collective social justice work. You’re probably familiar with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He reflects on the lack of community in contemporary life and problems of social belonging and so on related to this. We can, of course, join Green Peace or the Sierra Club or various organizations and work together for good purposes. But it appears that there is a bit of a vacuum often left by those who leave their churches.

But these are a couple of the roles that religions also fulfill that can be important for a meaningful life. It was this social function of religion that Durkheim focused on more than the question of individual comfort or of religious experience (such as William James writes about). Those without religion (or those who hope that religion will fade) will likely do well to find other ways to facilitate community. This, I’m sure, is part of what is behind the efforts like Alain Botton’s School of Life, which has meetings in London and other places, or the various Atheist churches. Some of them couple that with some other functions of religion, such as philosophical counseling as a stand-in for spiritual direction.

Mostly what I’m getting at here is that there is more that religion provides people than the individual comfort of a supernatural belief system. Many of those things are vitally needed for many people to have a good life and are benefits of a caring community. Maybe that last phrase should be highlighted since I think that a lot of the appeal of religion comes down to that. For all the sicknesses of any religion I’ve encountered, you can often find in the midst of that elements of a caring community — at least some group of people who are focused on a moral life and who find meaning in acts of kindness toward individuals and in work for social causes greater than themselves.

Brief reply – I agree with everything Dr. Arnold writes here. Religions have done, and motivate believers to do, many good things. (And the corollary is that many non-religious persons have done terrible things.) Religions also provide a sense of community to many, especially in a culture like America where isolation is such a big problem. I really think that religions are social clubs as much as anything else. It was Kierkegaard I believe who said that when you tell someone what religion you belong to you are basically telling them who you hang out with. The social and emotional aspects of religion also explain why rational arguments have so little effect on believers.

4 thoughts on “Religion as Community

  1. Even Dr. Arnold’s comments are articles in themselves. A revelation concerning organized faith is that religion is the closest thing to genuine socialism. The Christian societies of Scandinavia, for example.
    Have visited Scandinavia and the Low Countries; a strong impression was how Christianity in N. Europe was more important than the democratic socialism there. Put another way, the Christian in Christian Democracy is more salient than the Democracy. Old hat, though. The visit was three decades ago, a good feeling was in the air after the Berlin Wall was dismantled. Plus, since then other faiths have moved into the region. Mosques are more common. A lasting impression of Christian democracy has faded somewhat.
    One could plausibly consider religion in general a form of conservative or rightwing socialism. Heavy emphasis on the rightwing/conservative. Fire and brimstone faiths would in this scheme be Rightwing socialist. A more ‘liberalized’ Christian socialism is to found in the conservatism of, say, Methodism.
    The 1960s gave me a false outlook as to change. Change turned out to be material change– all else was revealed as revolving around self-interest. Having Trump for president (you could have guessed this comment would eventually lead to him) is validation of self interest being at the forefront of humanity’s concerns.
    The one large scale exception to self-interest is religion. Not religious practitioners but, rather the religious mores and standards. Drs. Arnold and Messerly have gone into the main points of religious community. Another is the old saw, ‘anomie is the enemy’. The Nomos is considered anodyne to anomie.
    Buddhism recognizes that life is suffering, suffering exacerbated by anomie. However instead of anomie being the enemy, anomie is not to be fought– a bodhi avoids combat. The Abrahamic faiths perceive the ‘Devil’ [i.e. the Anomic One] as The Enemy, to be cast into Hell with all his demons. That way, the guilt one feels can be cast on the Devil as the sins of humanity are cast onto Christ. An individual or group can be scapegoated & ostracized permanently, as Cain was sent away to live the rest of his life in Nod.
    Thus the Devil is quite convenient as Scapegoat. Either the Devil is invisible, or he does not exist. Holding the invisible/nonexistent Devil culpable for individual or collectivist sins takes the heat off sinners and sinner-scapegoats.
    I was trained as a ‘futurist’, which colors all my thinking about religion. Have soured on futurism albeit such might be caused by old age, sour grapes/sour gripes.
    Still…

    Dr. Messerly:
    “Religions also provide a sense of community to many, especially in a culture like America where isolation is such a big problem. I really think that religions are social clubs as much as anything else.”

    Fully agree. America is the most progressed nation. Progress, very sadly, does mean isolation. Sour gripes are understandable when the younger set is often alone with their computers. The corollary to this is how Youth don’t know what they are missing; ignorance can indeed be bliss. What many of us coots and codgers really miss is the warmth of the 1960s- ’70s– not the cultural effluvia of the era.
    ‘Conservatives’ miss the warmth of the ’80s. Later, during the ’90s, when the Internet burgeoned, the isolation began in earnest. Ironically, it took 9-11 to give America a sense of limited unity, and later on in the decade the Great Recession also provided some feeling of community. It is said “all good things come to an end”, the fifteen years from 2001 to 2016 gave way to you-know-who: the current resident of the White House. The deity might have given us a wake up call two years ago, from the great cell phone in the sky.

  2. Humans in cooperative tribes are more prosperous than humans in competitive isolation. In the absence of rational reasons for human collaboration and hope for the future (an honest appraisal reveals there ARE none, given the trap of the Prisoners’ Dilemma), we have evolved to sense a God-shaped hole in our hearts that other humans can help us fill (provisionally).
    Thus, the TRIBE is the fundamental unit of human existence. (The Enlightenment view of the the state of nature being a solitary noble savage is a distraction resulting from the influence of Christianity’s creation myth)
    We individuals are wired to love the tribe and its common world view. Those who suspect or can plainly see the irrationality of this arrangement are the outliers, and can only prosper in the modern day because of mass anonymity and automation and collective infrastructure weakening our dependence on intimate human connections.

  3. Hunter-gatherer tribes are artisan communism.
    The lack of anonymity (risk of shame) keeps everyone honest and productive. Love of common goals keeps everyone from resenting their obligations.
    Religion is an attempt to simulate the love/shame of the tribe in a community large enough to allow anonymity, just as the “state” is a response to a need to track contribution/extraction of group resources.

  4. Good comments, Len; will keep the ball rolling here if no one objects to the verbosity.
    Religion eventually developed into politics. Religious leaders morphed into political leaders over millennia. Animal and human sacrifice was rather common in different locations.
    Today sacrifice– ultimate sacrifice– still exists. One could definitely say Khashoggi was a sacrificial victim not only in a political sense of sacrifice– but also in a religious manner. The way Khashoggi was cut up while alive, as animal and human sacrificial victims were frequently sliced up alive in ages past. And naturally it was Saudi agents who did the sacrificing; Arabia being the birthplace of Islam. A residue of animal and human sacrifice still exists even in more civilized nations.
    Enough grisliness for one comment. At any rate, not to go on too long (my previous comment covered quite enough) I agree with Drs. Arnold and Messerly that Buddhism in the least destructive of all the major faiths.

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