Religion for Atheists, one of his recent books, explains to pro-religion non-believers like myself (an identity label I borrowed from Tyler Cowen) what we can learn from religious institutions when it comes to building community, forming relationships, improving ourselves, etc. Recommended. Highlights below.
We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.
For instance, much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which pre-date the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity.
One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighbourliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, a state where people pursue contact with one another primarily for restricted, individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.
All buildings give their owners opportunities to recondition visitors’ expectations and to lay down rules of conduct specific to them. The art gallery legitimates the practice of peering silently at a canvas, the nightclub of swaying one’s hands to a musical score. And a church, with its massive timber doors and 300 stone angels carved around its porch, gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane. We are promised that here (in the words of the Mass’s initial greeting) ‘the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ belong to all who have assembled. The Church lends its enormous prestige, accrued through age, learning and architectural grandeur, to our shy desire to open ourselves to someone new.
Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However, the proximity required by a meal – something about handing dishes around, unfurling napkins at the same moment, even asking a stranger to pass the salt – disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.
It is hard to attend most wedding parties without realizing that these celebrations are at some level also marking a sorrow, the entombment of sexual liberty and individual curiosity for the sake of children and social stability, with compensation from the community being delivered through gifts and speeches.
religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy. In this respect, they are greatly more sophisticated than those secular political theorists who write lyrically about the loss of a sense of community, while refusing to acknowledge the inherently dark aspects of social life.
We shouldn’t banish feasting and debauchery to the margins, to be mopped up by the police and frowned upon by commentators. We should give chaos pride of place once a year or so, designating occasions on which we can be briefly exempted from the two greatest pressures of secular adult life: having to be rational and having to be faithful. We should be allowed to talk gibberish, fasten woollen penises to our coats and set out into the night to party and copulate randomly and joyfully with strangers, and then return the next morning to our partners, who will themselves have been off doing something similar, both sides knowing that it was nothing personal, that it was the Feast of Fools that made them do it.
The difference between Christian and secular education reveals itself with particular clarity in their respective characteristic modes of instruction: secular education delivers lectures, Christianity sermons. Expressed in terms of intent, we might say that one is concerned with imparting information, the other with changing our lives. Sermons by their very nature assume that their audiences are in important ways lost. The titles alone of the sermons by one of the most famous preachers of eighteenth-century England, John Wesley, show Christianity seeking to dispense practical advice about a range of the soul’s ordinary challenges: ‘On Being Kind’, ‘On Staying Obedient to Parents’, ‘On Visiting the Sick’, ‘On Caution Against Bigotry’.
Departments would be required to confront the problematic areas of our lives head-on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies would be given form and explored as openly in lay institutions as they are in churches. There would be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness.
We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.
This double insight – that we should train our minds just as we train our bodies, and that we should do so partly through those bodies – has led to the founding, by all the major faiths, of religious retreats where adherents may for a limited time abscond from their ordinary lives and find inner restoration through spiritual exercise.
It is a mechanism whereby society – whether secular or religious – attempts reliably to inculcate in its members, within a set span of years, what it took the very brightest and most determined of their ancestors centuries of painful and sporadic efforts to work out.
The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation.
Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place. It surreptitiously invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history, and the achievements of our fellow humans as the measure of all things – a grandiosity that plunges us into continuous swirls of anxiety and envy.
compassion, the fragile quality which enables the boundaries of our egos to dissolve, helps us to recognize ourselves in the experiences of strangers and can make their pain matter to us as much as our own.
It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much. The deep, immersive thinking which produced many of civilization’s most important achievements has come under unprecedented assault. We are almost never far from a machine that guarantees us a mesmerizing and libidinous escape from reality.
They were employing institutions, marshalling enormous agglomerations of people to act in concert upon the world through works of art, buildings, schools, uniforms, logos, rituals, monuments and calendars.
In his Republic, Plato conveyed a touching understanding (born from experience) of the limits of the lone intellectual, when he remarked that the world would not be set right until philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers. In other words, writing books can’t be enough if one wishes to change things. Thinkers must learn to master the power of institutions for their ideas to have any chance of achieving a pervasive influence on the world.