Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Doing Good

The anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech reminds us that the Freedom Movement was originally organized by churches and led by preachers, MLK foremost among them. I certainly can't deny that religion has often inspired people to do great things. But just because a belief system can produce benefits has no bearing on whether it is true. To argue for a belief based on its alleged utility is called the pragmatic fallacy.

In any event, I need hardly point out that religion can equally be a force for evil, from the ancient history of sectarian violence (read the Bible if you really want to see how God can inspire hatred and gore -- and he hasn't gotten the least bit sweeter either) to oppression of women and sexual minorities, to torturing dissenters to death in Jesus' name, to the depredations of European colonialism (fully justified by Christian leaders), and oh yeah, slavery and white supremacy, the very evil King's movement was organized to overcome. The problem with claiming religious belief as a force for good is that it is arbitrary, and can just as easily, probably more easily, pivot in an instant to become a force for evil. Just consider the rally that happened at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday.

Still, apart from its large scale role in society, religion creates community at the local level. Religious congregations do charitable work, they help neighbors meet each other and they knit together small towns, and in many societies they perform other essential services. I don't mind admitting that I miss that. I don't have anyplace to go on Sunday to meet up with old friends and make new ones. I've known people who were down and out at one time and slept in the church basement. Support groups and youth programs and voluntary organizations and all sorts of down home institutions meet in churches and are nurtured by congregations.

So, like a lot of people, I can see an argument for trying to replace all that with some form of secular community. People have tried, with humanist associations and that sort of thing. Some Unitarian churches manage to keep the mysticism to a minimum, although others are still pretty heavy on the Jesus. But for the most part attempts to replicate the secular functions of religious communities with non-religious organizations haven't been very successful.

There are plenty of important secular charities, obviously, but they have little or no connection to local communities, they just ask you to mail them checks. There are all sorts of clubs organized around a specific interest, from theater to stock market investing to bicycling to smashing imperialism, but you have to be heavily into the particular to take part and they aren't likely to branch out into succoring the needy or being a way for new folks in town to meet up with everyone.

So I agree, without religion there can be some social goods we haven't quite figured out how to replace. Any brilliant ideas?

Oh, and BTW: I am going through some major changes in my own life the next couple of months, it's possible there will be some disruption in blogging as there was on Friday. I hope it won't be the case, but if it is you'll know why.


kathy a. said...

no, and i wish i had that brilliant idea. community is what i miss most about belonging to a church, also. my religious friends are on the do-good, non-evangalistic side, and we bond over similar non-religious purposes.

robin andrea said...

I grew up without any formal religious instruction. We never went to temple. My father was an atheist, and I will always be grateful for that. We did celebrate the high holy days, which meant gathering with family for Passover and Yom Kippur. That was it. So, community was something we found within our family. It was tribal. I think formal religions have in many ways supplanted what it really means to be a part of a tribe. There is no remedy for what has become of our original natures.

If you lived on a commune with like-minded people, who gathered as an organic outgrowth of similar needs, can you imagine ever needing church?