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My Problem With Religion, 3

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For Cheryl–if I knew where I was going with this, I wouldn’t be wriiting it.  That’s what the blog’s for.

Okay, I’m being facetious.  And I do want to point out, for John’s sake, that the existence of God is not a question in philosophy.  It’s a question in theology if you’re arguing in favor.  If you’re arguing opposed, it’s a question taken up by a lot of people, but the rules of philosophy require things you can’t have with that particular question.

Note that most of the people arguing in the New  Atheist mode these days are anything but philosophers–biologists, physicists, journalists, but only Dennett is a real philosopher, and he’s bad at it.

I’l get to that later.

More on secularization. 

A couple of people protest that secularization can’t really be happening because lots of people in the US say they believe in God and there are big, successful megachurches in the Bible Bet.

But the US is not the whole of the West, and any look at Western Europe shows Christianity in virtual collapse.   Polls persistantly find even believers at only around half the population, and people who “find religion important in their daily lives” clock in at well under fifty percent everywhere but Italy and Portugal.

Europe is full of historic church architecture from one end to the other, and where it is not maintained by the Catholic Church, it is steadily being converted into everything from apartments to movie theaters. 

The US is certainly more religiously oriented than this, but n owhere near as religious oriented as it was even twenty years ago, never mind fifty years ago. Those surveys that track how important people find religion in their daily lives find Americans claiming that it’s important or very important about 63% of the time–down from 83% only twenty years ago.

What’s more, conscious unbelief isn’t distributed evenly across social and educational classes.  The more highly educated a person is, the more likely he is not to believe in God, or in any kind of spiriturality at all. 

Put that together with the fact that most Western nations are at least nominally meritocracies–that educational levels largely determine who gets to run things–an what you get are societies in which belief in God is increasingly irrelevant in day to day life.

Remember that “secular” does not mean “atheist.”  It means “of this world.” 

Plumbing is secular.  It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not, if you’re a Muslim or a Christian, if you’re a Trinitarian or a Unitarian–everybody does plumbing the same way, and the rules of plumbing do not change.  When we do plumbing, God needs never to come up.

We’re so used to living in a world where m ost things are secular, that we don’t realize how unusual it is, at least historically.  Well into the nineteenth century, the care of the sick and the poor, the orphan and the widow, were religious activities, carried out by religious societies.  So was much of education.  All those things have no been thoroughly professionalized and often given over to a secular government to run.

And even when the functions remain with nominally religious bodies, those bodies are often religious in name only.  Catholic Charities behaves like a secular social service agency, with fury arising regularly from the pews because doctors and nurses in its employ prescribe birth control or counsel abortions.   In a conflict between God and “good social work practice,” “good social work practice” wins every time.

But there’s actually a deeper problem here in the nominally religious organizations–religious people have stopped acting like religious people in ways that make an enormous difference in the day to day lives of their fellow citizens.

Look for a minute at American parochial schools.  Someone once pointed out that the Amerian parochial school system was the second largest school system of any kind in the world, and it ran for over a century by providing primary and secondary education for Catholic children from poor, working class and oven immigrant families.

It could do this because nuns worked essentially for free.  The parish would contact a teaching order–the  School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Saint  Joseph of Carondolet–and the order would send out a small army of nuns who were paid their room, board, and maybe ten dollars or so a month.  If that. 

The same was true with nuns in Catholic hospitals.  It was possible for the Catholic Church to provide free medical care to large numbers of the poor because it got a lot of highly trained nurses close to free–certainly for a lot less than it would have had to pay secular staff.

Nuns and monks and priests worked for little or nothing because the work was meant to be ad majorem gloria Dei–for the greater glory of God.  

These days, the numbers of monks, nuns and priests get smaller by the day, and none of these people work under the old formulas.  Catholic schools must pay the going rate for teachers even when they hire nuns. Catholic hospitals must pay the going rate for nurses even when they hire nuns. 

The money to pay all these people comes increasingly from government programs, and it comes with strings attached.  The hospital may not put crosses up, or attempt to convert patients or their families.  The orphanage may not insist that adopting parents must be Catholic, or married, or heterosexual.  The school may not insist that the teachers it hires be members of its own faith.

In other words, it is increasingly difficult for religious people to lead religious lives anywhere in today’s West.  It’s a bit easier in the US than it is in France or Holland, but it’s still not easy. 

What’s more, it is increasingly easy for nonreligious people to use religion as an accessory–to insist on a church wedding (as someone pointed out) because, well, that’s beautiful, and traditional and old fashioned, and who’s the priest to tell me I can’t?  After all, everybody has a right to his own opinion!

Many churches have responded to this by lowering the bar, decreasing the discomfort of bein a believer in the modern world.  As late as the early nineteen sixties, a Catholic who expected to receive Communion on Sunday was required to go without food at least from midnight.  Now the requirement is for at least an hour before Mass.  The United Church of Christ–the modern decendant of the church the Puritans brought with them–runs adds trumpeting its inclusion, by which it means its welcoming acceptance of gay couples.

This is why I said many accidental atheists may not even realize they’re atheists–religion in the West has become largely a matter of emotion, of “this feels right to me,” and o little a matter of substance, that someone could go years without realizing that even the feeling was gone.

What such people are most certainly not doing it taking meaning or morality from their religion.  If their religion declares that abortion is wrong and they disagree, they think it’s the church that’s doing the bad thing if the church tries to insist. 

Religion is only legitimate, for accidental atheists, when it adopts the secularism of the world around it, when “God” is mostly a fairy tale encased in a lot of poetic, and thoroughly irrelevant, language.

The Catholic Church had a place–still does, as far as I know–for people who could not “believe” (have the emotional experience of belief), but who had studied the doctrines of the Church and felt intellectually compelled to assent to them.

No such people exist in the secularized church, and the idea of deliberately bending ones will to a discipline one finds difficult, unpleasant and not wholly sensible–all, again, ad majorem gloria Dei–would strike most peope even in theoretically religious Ameria and just plain stupid.

Which gets us back to Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens, but that’s for tomorrow.

Written by janeh

August 8th, 2009 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'My Problem With Religion, 3'

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  1. Well, speaking strictly about plumbing, if you’ve ever tried to change out a shut-off valve on 30 year old pipes, you’d realize that both blaspheming and prayer are an integral part of the process. ;)

    More thoughts on the actual subject of the post later…


    8 Aug 09 at 12:50 pm

  2. Well, yes, our society is overwhelmingly secular. I don’t have any argument with that. It’s not entirely secular – there are religous people out there, and in many areas new large churches (usually Pentecostal, around here). It is entirely possible to live an entirely secular life, give or take an angel on the Christmas tree or a nativity set on your neighbour’s lawn, a wedding or perhaps a funeral, if the deceased was old enough to be assumed to practice a religion, or was known to have done so.

    Of course, I’m defining ‘secular’ as ‘not thinking about a god’ rather than ‘not having any sloan, picture, name, or song that was originally religious come to one’s attention’.

    So is the next question how all these secular people agree on a common moral code when they don’t know anything about religion or much about philosophy, much less agree about what they do know? Because if that’s the case, I don’t have an answer. You can’t do it by legal codes – they may be partly inspired by a society’s moral codes, but they aren’t the same thing.


    8 Aug 09 at 1:36 pm

  3. In agreement here–especially about it being harder to practice Christianity. For the young and the non-U.S., fifty years ago my father ran a small chain store in the midwest. The entire downtown business district closed from 12:00 to 3:00 on Good Friday. There was no law to that effect. So many employees wanted time off to be in church and so few customers wanted to do business over the holy hours, that it was just easier all around to lock the doors. The town was, as the signs said, “Fort Wayne, City of Churches.” Today the downtown business district doesn’t even exist. The big box stores run 24/7 and the signs read “Fort Wayne, City of Attractions.” (Not that we have any, mind you.) As Jane implies, you reach tipping points at which a community adjusts to the behavior of a group, and it is easier to function as one of them. I suspect it’s a lot easier to find caffine-free non-alcoholic beverages in Utah, for instance.

    But there’s also something else on the horizon. It’s not quite a religion yet, but it’s showing some of the traits–about like Christianity at the time of the Epistles. It doesn’t have a canon, but it’s got a rough code of behavior, beliefs and saints, and it’s proseletizing like mad. I call it the Momement in lieu of something more precise. It’s a combination of multiculturalists, death penalty oppoents, ZPG advocates, “small is beautiful” types, anti-nuclear activists and believers in “anthropogenic global climate change.” The various pieces are still “working in,” but they do all seem to be pieces of one thing.
    Not a religion? Does ANYONE who sees Al Gore burning carbon to beat the band and paying for “carbon offsets” not think of indulgences? Believing in a religion doesn’t mean you don’t sin, but it sets your definition of what sin is.
    But whatever it is, it’s getting easier to practice in the West than Christianity.


    8 Aug 09 at 5:49 pm

  4. Robert, I think what you’re talking about is definitely not quite a religion yet, but I also don’t think it will be. It’s not organized enough to function like a religion in the way political isms often do – nationalism, communism, political party-ism, etc. I prefer to say ‘function as a religion’ rather than ‘be a religion’ since I think in order to be a religion, there has to be a god, or at least some idea of transcendance. (I used to just say ‘god’, but someone pointed out the example of Buddhism, which is classfied as a religion without a creator god.)

    I’d disagree with some of the items on your list, too. I don’t see how death penalty opponants and ZPG advocates fit together that well. Cultural beliefs can have a lot of strength without being religious, and I don’t think it’s religion that makes some people respond with shock and disapproval if you question whether carbon offsets will do a thing about global warming (or the role of human activity in the climate, present and future) or whether the underlying cause of human poverty is political systems and instabilty or simply too many people.

    In my opinion, some of the animal rights crowd come closest to a religion (usually) without a god because some of them make some strong moral claims, most obviously that animals and humans are morally equivalent, meaning neither should be hunted or eaten. If anything, animals are morally superior to humans (presumably this is held mostly by people who don’t think too closely about predators). Defending the seal hunt to such people is a good way to be treated as beyond the pale.


    9 Aug 09 at 5:37 am

  5. I agree that the West today religion does not play the same role in people’s lives and in the life of society that it did 100 or 1000 years ago. But I see two places where it does play a really significant role. One is in politics in the US– the fundamental Christian churches’ recent (like the last 25 years) participation in political life, the way they have limited, say, abortion although the majority of Americans support (some) access to abortion in (some) circumstances. And then there was George W Bush, who let Rumsfield send him updates on the war in Iraq with quotes from the Bible on them and what I just read online: Now out of office, Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.” This is about as non-secular as you can get.

    I also don’t entirely agree that “What such people are most certainly not doing it taking meaning or morality from their religion.” The example you give is abortion. I think people have rebelled against the sexual morality in the church. But I don’t think they have rejected the Ten Commandments or The Golden Rule. Today it might be couched differently – “I’m going to let you jump line so I can rack up some good karma,” “We spend Sunday doing random acts of kindness” – but it is still a form of non-secular morality. People might be rejecting the discipline of religious behavior and belief, and their notions of the afterlife might be a bit fuzzy (tunnel, light, angels), but the premise – you do good things now because somehow it will affect your fate – is not “of this world.”

    I suspect my nattering about Russia seems beside the point or boring. But I do it because people tend to make statements about the US that don’t quite stand up to comparisons. What I mean is that we think of the US as being secular and commercialized – but compared to other places, we’re not so far down – or up – the secular-o-meter.

    But this also interests me because Russia these days is really and truly amoral. People don’t care about the law (because the laws are ridiculous, unfair, and impossible to follow). They don’t respect the lawgivers because they are breaking the law a thousands time more than the average person. They didn’t really assimilate the morality of religion. There’s nothing that stays their hand. They kill a man’s children to force him to sell a company. They deny a visa to a journalist (and ruin her life) because she wrote an article about some corruption (although nothing came of it). They arrange contract killings of journalists who are reporting on the illegality of some deal. They steal billions of dollars from the state coffers while pensioners live off $150 a month. They classify the knifing of a 9-year-old Tadjik girl as “hooliganism.” They cause traffic accidents zipping from the left lane to make a right hand turn. They steal parking places you are waiting for. They jump lines. Of course, not everybody acts this way. But sometimes it seems that those people are the exceptions, not the rule.

    I look at all this and I honestly don’t know how they can look at themselves in the mirror. Really – how can you burn down someone’s house and then buy up the land for a song, build a mansion, and then enjoy it? And forget that you got it by destroying someone’s property, their family photographs, their income?

    I think of it as not having a conscience, but I don’t really know what that is. I mean, I think these people know what they’re doing is wrong, in the sense that if someone did it to them, they’d be outraged. But they have lost their fear of punishment. They don’t believe they’ll go to hell, and they know they can buy off the cops. And they don’t seem to think beyond today. This will all come out sooner or later. How are their children going to live when all this becomes known? How is the country going to survive when they’ve stolen its wealth? I sort of agree with Robert about the Movement. Those people have some sense of working today for greater glory tomorrow, even if it’s the greater glory of clean air or rivers.

    So I’m going to read on to see where you’re taking this.


    9 Aug 09 at 6:32 am

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