Is There a Non-Believer Substitute for Religious Community?

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Let’s pretend organized religion fell seriously out of favour and there were no churches. Would we be missing anything? I suspect there are many people who would be nostalgic for some of the things we get from religion. But it is more than nostalgia. I’m sure church provides members with practical benefits as well.

What are these things, both nostalgic and practical? Another way of putting this question is “What features would a church-like social institution need to have in order to replace the good parts of church/religious life without dragging along all the bad parts – the superstition and willingness to substitute simplistic “beliefs” for critical thinking and scientific truth?”

I think the good parts boil down to two features: art and community. The first – art – includes religious music, architecture, poetry, literature, and anything else generated out of the creative imagination inspired by religion. I’m not going to discuss these here. These features, I believe, would be relatively easy to replace in a strictly secular society. In some societies they already have been more or less replaced. There is nothing about art and creativity that suggests it can only be inspired by religion.

The Sense of Community

But the second – community – may be a different matter. I want to consider some of the things about the community aspects of religion and their potential replacements, that suggest themselves to me.

By “community” I do not mean the way we humans live in groups and adopt practices and rules for coping with each other. We have this sort of community whether there are churches or not. This is what we might call (big C) “Community” – essentially all-encompassing and impersonal. Church groups are more like smaller communities within the larger (big C) community. They are “little c” communities.

I want to talk about little c community – the kind you find in groups of people who share specific interests and come together (from time to time on a more or less regular basis). Groups of “anglers and hunters”, for example, who have a clubhouse in the woods somewhere and shoot their guns at targets on the weekend. Or parent groups whose children all attend the same school. Or service clubs whose members get together for meetings every month or so, and hold special events to raise money for the improvement of the neighbourhood park.

The most obvious feature of small c “community” groups is the “getting-together” component. People who regularly attend church do so, at least partially, because it gives them an opportunity to be with friends who share similar interests. They have things they can discuss, and projects they can work on together. There is continuity from one meeting to the next and a certain degree of predictability about the shared interests and activities. These things provide the members with the sort of comfort that comes from familiarity and mutual support.

Presumably this is an important reason why atheists would get together too: to simply be with people who share some fairly important core attitudes. But obviously gatherings of non-believers will be different from gatherings of believers.

The first difference you might expect is that a “blanket of belief” is usually spread over gatherings of religious believers. This has an important modulating effect on the group activities they engage in. Some religious groups will hold bingos, poker nights and dances. But others will look askance at these activities.

One of the important constraints typical of religious groups has to do with sexuality. I will discuss this at greater length later in this essay, but suffice it to say, for now, that sexual constraints are one of the most important and most characteristic features of religious groups, and possibly the most difficult feature to implement in a secular group (because there is no ideological or doctrinal basis on which to implement it).

Atheist Get Togethers

A quick search for atheist groups in this area (Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge-Guelph Ontario) brings up a few student and young people oriented groups. These look like they are heavy on the “exchange of ideas” front – places where people can go and talk about ideology and anti-theology.

Ironically, this makes these groups different from most church gatherings I am familiar with. For the most part church gatherings are ideologically passive. The message is familiar, and the theology is more or less settled. The lay people rarely engage in real dialogue about ideas. It is their role to receive the truth from the anointed leaders – the priest or pastor.

Things are different at gatherings of atheists. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. People who hold atheist or skeptical views often come from religious backgrounds and have recently thrown off the shackles of religious belief. And because groups like this are often led or initiated by active and outspoken university students, recent graduates or disaffected seminary students they focus on the academic and ideological aspects of non-belief.

Atheists also tend to be critical and are prone to disagree a lot – with believers, obviously, but with each other too. They like to discuss ideas, so for them get togethers focus on presentations, lectures and seminars. I’m sure there is “socializing” going on at their gatherings too, but that tends to take a back seat to the exchange of ideas and the expressing of opinions.

Another observation – and this may be totally out in left field – socially active young people – at least the kind who tend to go to atheist get-togethers – often do not have families (i.e., spouses with children), and do not have the same concerns as young parents have. Inevitably in these groups, exchanging ideas often degenerates into argumentation, and argumentation often leads to friction. In my experience, young parents – especially mothers – are not looking for arguments or friction. They get enough of that from their kids.

I have no research to back this up, but it seems to me that the impetus to “fit in” is especially strong when starting out on a career or sending young children off to school. A young parent’s job is to get along – for the sake of his or her children. This is especially true when the kids start attending school. They pay a price for being non-conformists (like atheists and non-believers tend to be.) Singles, on the other hand, can be “free thinkers” without paying the price of non-conformity.

There’s More to Community

But this sort of idea exchange group could never replace the “community” aspects found in most churches. Because community involves a lot more than just getting together and talking, sharing, studying and listening to interesting presentations.

Other than this “getting together” stuff, the most significant thing that a church provides is a community anchor. As individuals – even if we live in a small town and know lots of fellow townspeople – our attachment to the community is generally transitory and fairly shallow.

But attachment to and identification with a specific religious group within a town provides an anchor and a point of reference for important life experiences: births, deaths, weddings, special anniversaries, and so on. Of course family is the other traditional anchor or this type. But increasingly family ties are being weakened as people move around the country, and marriages split up.

The importance of this role for religious communities was brought home to me several years ago when a friend of mine died. He was originally from India, a nominal Moslem, but in no sense identified with or participated in the local Moslem community. In fact he had been at loggerheads with local Moslems for various reasons. He had no family in Canada, and when he died fairly suddenly from liver disease, there was no one to take charge of his funeral.

I don’t know what normally happens in cases like this, but in this case the local Moslem congregation simply moved in and took charge. They looked after preparing the body for burial, and took it upon themselves to hold a ceremony in the best Islamic tradition.

Now I’m sure my friend would not have chosen this way to be buried if he had had the chance, but there was no family to say otherwise, and no friends or associates, myself included, who were in a position to do so either. The point is that religious organizations have taken this role upon themselves in our society, and this fact must be a source of comfort for millions of people. Because as people get older thoughts of “Who will help when I die?” must surely become more common. “Who will orchestrate and pay for my funeral?”, “Who will help my spouse make the adjustment?, etc.

In fact, many of us need assistance well before we die. Yes there are government departments, social assistance agencies, and service clubs all pitching in to offer assistance of one kind or another. But often help of this sort comes from friends within our religious communities who are aware of and care about our personal issues. These are the most important aspects of community life that no discussion group or meetup can possibly offer.

A Word About Sex

The implication is that atheist or non-believing groups cannot possibly take the place of religious groups unless members are prepared to share in each other’s lives at a much deeper level than having a weekly discussion group. They must, in a sense, “surrender” part of themselves to a specific group which then becomes their go-to source of consolation, assistance and empathy for those big issues of life. How precisely this would work itself out is anybody’s guess.

A potential problem is that this may very well put strains on the morality of members – their sexual fidelity for example. It is one thing to be relatively close friends with other church members – most of whom will likely be similar in age to you. In a typical religious setting interaction between members is constrained by fairly specific rules of conduct – sexual constraints, for example – rules that are usually fairly central to the doctrines of the faith. These rules are often broken, but that is beside the point.

It is quite another thing to have these interactions with people (in hypothetical groups of non-believers) without similar constraints. Of course a group may adopt explicit rules about such interaction – as schools have done with respect to relationships between teachers and students, for example. But it is anybody’s guess how such rules would sit with a group of “free thinkers” who make a point of rejecting traditional religious hangups.

Rules like this are important to the viability of the group. If members cannot trust that they are “safe” within the group they will quickly abandon their attachment to the group. Imagine, for instance, that you are a young married man and you belong to a group that has a number of attractive, flirtatious female members. Your wife will be less than enthusiastic about your involvement.

I have the feeling that problems like this arise because atheism/skepticism/non-belief is lacking in the kind of moral consensus you find in religious organizations. As with other aspects of their faith, religious people may be simply fooled into thinking their faith provides a reasonable basis for their morality. But even if none of their belief ultimately makes any sense, religious believers tend to present a united front. They have a “foundation”, however un-firm, which atheists tend not to have.

The Morality Solution

But there is reason for optimism among atheists, skeptics and non-believers. As time goes by and the atheist/skeptical/non-belief position is more widely disseminated we can expect the arguments for a rationalist morality to make sense to more and more people – especially died-in-the-wool atheist/skeptic/non-believers.

And as that happens the type of constraints noted above (sexual constraints being the primary example) will have a firmer more broadly accepted foundation – not in religious ideas, but in rational morality. Screwing around with another member’s spouse would be viewed as morally unacceptable – not because God is looking down disapprovingly, but because it is a betrayal of the trust fellow members have in each other.

Note: This topic and some of the thoughts expressed here were suggested to me from two sources:
First, Daniel Dennett’s presentation called Daniel C. Dennett on What Should Replace Religions?, and
Second, the television program on CNN called “Inside Man: ‘And no religion too…'”