Category Archives: Religion

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.

The Mina Stampede: Tragedy and God’s Will

A few weeks ago tragedy struck during the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. A new tally shows that at least 1621 were killed, and thousands more were injured or are missing. Other sources put the death toll near 2,000. While the exact cause of the “Mina stampede” is disputed, the Saudi Interior Ministry stated that the stampede was triggered when two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street.[2] 

However other experts don’t classify the tragedy as a stampede. For example, University of Sussex crowd behavioral expert Anne Templeton told Newsweek. “The density of the Hajj has been shown to reach up to 6–8 people per square meter, so I would be very surprised if a stampede (implying people running mindlessly) could occur in the first place.”[168] The Mina disaster is better understood as a “progressive crowd collapse”:[22][168] beginning at densities of about six[22] to seven[169] persons per square meter, individuals are pressed so closely against each other they are unable to move as individuals, and shockwaves can travel through a crowd which, at such densities, behaves somewhat like a fluid.[169] If a single person falls, or other people reach down to help, waves of bodies can be involuntarily precipitated forward into the open space.[22] One such shockwave can create other openings in the crowd nearby, precipitating further crushing.[22]Unable to draw breath, individuals in a crowd can also be crushed while standing.[169]

We also know is that a number of crowd crush tragedies have occurred in the past during the hajj,[21] with 1,426 people being suffocated and trampled to death in a 1990 tunnel tragedy, and at least 701 people killed in crowd crushes between 1991 and 2005.[22]

We also know that 346 people were killed in a similar Jamaraat incident in 2006, which prompted the Saudi government to improve the infrastructure of the city and its procession routes.[2] The Saudi Arabian government has been spending $60 billion to expand the Grand Mosque which houses the Kaaba, and has deployed 100,000 security forces and 5,000 CCTV cameras to monitor the crowds.[23]

The way to Jamarat Bridge 3.JPG

Bodies lie covered in sheets. The death toll has been climbing steadily.

What also caught my attention about the tragedy were some of the religious responses to the tragedy. To his credit Salman al-Ouda, a Saudi cleric said that “Riyadh regime should be held accountable for the crush, adding that Saudi rulers cannot evade their responsibility by labeling the tragedy as an act of God.” He called on media outlets to cover the incident with full transparency.[160] 

However others were not so rational. For example, A Saudi human rights activist said “The way I see it is success goes to those in authority, and mistakes go to God’s will.”  And Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader (appointed to his position by King Fahdin 1999), told Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior, Muhammad bin Nayef, “You are not responsible for what happened. As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable”.[155][156]

I cannot say to what extent the government was fully or partly responsible, or to what extent a number of other factors like crowd size, record heat, pedestrian bottlenecks, etc. came together to cause the tragedy. What I can say is that supernatural will had nothing to do with this. It is easy to criticize such simple-minded attempts to deal with tragedy, and it is understandable that human beings want explanations, but it is counterproductive to blame imaginary gods for such tragedies.  Such explanations lead to fatalism and passivity, exactly the opposite of what we need if we are to improve our lives and those of our descendants.

Religion Without God

I recently read an article from the New York Times by the Stanford anthropologist, T. M. Luhrmann. She begins by noting that here family will go to church on Christmas. There is nothing unusual about this except that the church Luhrmann will attend is Unitarian. Unitarians reject orthodox Christian Trinitarian theology—just try to make sense of Trinitarianism—and replace it with the doctrine that God is one. Unitarianism emerged in early modern Europe but over the last 200 years “the Unitarian church had become a place for intellectuals who were skeptical of belief claims but who wanted to hang on to faith in some manner … The modern Unitarian Universalist Association’s statement of principles does not mention God at all.”

This faith without god is becoming more popular in the USA,  and atheist services have arisen around the country. “How do we understand this impulse to hold a “church” service despite a hesitant or even nonexistent faith?” Luhrmann thinks that “part of the answer is surely the quest for community.” Why not hang out with other people and sing, hear interesting talks, and think about self-improvement and making the world a better place? Luhrmann also theorizes that engaging in rituals may have less to do with religious beliefs, and more to do with setting time aside to reflect in a way that is different from other activities.

Luhrmann applauds this new idea of atheist churches.  In fact she thinks that “religion without God may be more poignant [than religion with gods.] Atheists trust in human relations, not supernatural ones, and humans are not so good at delivering the world as it should be. Perhaps that is why we are moved by Christmas carols, which conjure up the world as it can be and not the world we know.”

The need for an atheist church has no appeal for me, but I can understand that people would want to find community with like-minded believers. After all, that is a large part of the appeal of religion today, especially in cultures in which persons are isolated, alienated and exploited. No wonder the USA and the Middle East have so much religiosity, while Japan, Western Europe and Scandinavia so little.

The Origin of Scientology

Salon magazine recently featured an article about the forthcoming Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s explosive new HBO documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” I encourage my readers to view the article and the documentary about this horrific cult. It saddens me that life’s difficulties compel some people to turn to nonsense for comfort. And it makes me sad that that people exploit others who are having trouble.

Pursuant to the above paragraph, I thought my readers might be interested in this video. In it L. Ron Hubbard’s great-grandson suggests that L. Ron was a disturbed charlatan. One can’t conclude that all religions start with psychopaths, but no doubt many did. (You know the old saying: “when a few people believe something crazy, it’s called a cult; when many people believe something crazy, it’s called a religion.”) You can’t buy the answers to life’s big questions, as Spinoza noted 400 years ago:

“If the way which, as I have shown, leads hither seem very difficult, it can nevertheless be found. It must indeed be difficult, since it is so seldom discovered, for if salvation lay ready to hand and could be discovered without great labour, how could it be possible that it should be neglected almost by everybody ? But all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.”

Some Interesting Biblical Prescriptions

While this pokes fun at Biblical literalists, and irrationality should be open to ridicule, I don’t post it to make fun of all religion. After all, there are good things in Biblical prescriptions too, like the command to love your neighbor. Still what follows should remind those who claim to have a monopoly on the truth that the truth isn’t found in your favorite book, subjective experience or preferred guru. Truth is something found at great cost. It is easy to claim to know the truth, it is much harder to search for it. That’s what I think is important, the search.

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination… End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

  1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
  2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
  3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
  4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
  5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
  6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
  7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle- room here?
  8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
  9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
  10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.