Friday, July 17, 2009

Why "church" works

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what (from my rabid-atheist perspective) appears to be a firm grip by the churches of America on those who attend church. I’m beginning to understand something: it isn’t that the church has a grip on the parishioners, it’s that the parishioners have a grip on the church. See, down here in the US South, “church” isn’t just a building you go to one hour a week, it’s the centerpiece of the local people’s entire culture. It’s where you see your friends and neighbors, it’s where your kids go when they’re Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts (you’d be amazed how many Scout troops are hosted in church basements), it’s where at least two people I know met and wooed their spouses (and where at least one person I know met the person he cheated on his wife with), and at the end of it all, it’s where the living go to bury their dead, knowing with certainty that they too will someday be buried there next to generations of their own people. Vacation trips, charity drives, study groups, knitting circles, art classes, the church is at the center of all of it for the majority of Americans, and not just down here in the South.

What do we secularists have to offer in place of this richness? The sad, barren truth, without even the dubious comfort of an uppercase “T” on the word? The truth that there is no God and when you’re dead, you’re dead and you’ll never see your loved ones again? And we wonder why we have, shall we say, a bit of a “PR problem”.

Secular humanism will overcome “church” the day that secular humanism offers something better. And to be perfectly blunt, “the truth about how the world is” just isn’t perceived by most people as “better”. We need more than just “the truth”, much more. I’m not sure that secularism as currently constituted even has the potential to replace “church”, if for no other reason than the fact that it simply isn’t set up structurally to answer the same set of human needs that “church” answers.


Glencadia said...

Thank you for leaving the link to your article on Socrates from my docudharma post. I also liked this about church. Nice. I was wondering, and this is a related but different post, if you have ever had the sensation of resonance when listening to scripture. I mean that no other ancient text, at least ancient and ancient sounding, can quite resonate like that which is in the canon. Even as a complete atheist, it clearly links someone to people who lived 2 thousand years ago and the appeal of that is almost tangible. Its part of the appeal of church, I would say... anyway, thanks again and I want to read the rest of that article. I don't remember Alcibiades accusing Socrates of more than neglecting or rejecting Alcibiades when he was no longer attractive... or something. And that Plato turns on his hero and makes a Socrates the villian is interesting too. And that Socrates promises to interrupt in Alcibiades lies, then never interrupts. Fascinating.

CrustyPolemicist said...

Many thanks, Glencadia. I agree that the King James Bible (most especially the OT) reads better than, say, the Epic of Gilgamesh or the 'Gita. I suspect a lot of that resonance is because King James told the translators to make the translation as "Shakespearean" as possible. I think they succeeded admirably. The collateral damage was that the translation itself is crap, with many passages deliberately mistranslated and sexed up to achieve the high poetry of Shakespeare. A friend who has read it in the original told me the original is resonant in a completely different way, very much like the Koran: a very spare, strong poetry that evokes the wasteland of the desert at every turn.