Some folks suppose that religion is, to all (or at least most) religionists, a social club, or a means of maintaining social status. Intelligent politicians and clergymen (yes, some will complain those are oxymorons) are especially suspected of not really believing, but only claiming to believe for the sake of political position. I’ve read numerous claims on atheist blogs that since President Obama is obviously an intelligent man, he must be a closet atheist. The same is said of such figures as Newton, Galileo, and probably even Francis Collins. A common refrain among new atheist writers is that most clergymen no longer believe in God (or at least in Christ’s divinity) and remain in harness for practical reasons.
There are at least three separate issues here:
- social belonging—it is the social aspects of the religious community that are important to the individual rather than the spiritual teachings;
- insincere belief—the believer is in the religious community for the sake of family and friends or is pretending belief to ensure the approval of necessary parties;
- specialness—the believer likes being a member of what he regards as an elite group. He is saved, but that guy over there in that other church or faith, not so much.
I’ve known people who were very up front about their motivations in that regard. They were Catholic because they liked the pomp and splendor of mass or attended an Evangelical church because they liked the social aspects or outreach ministry of that group.
Does that make it reasonable to assume that all or even most religious people are religious because they like being part of a particular group? I don’t think so, but that may be because I’m only social because my faith stresses the importance of strong communities and it’s hard to be part of a community without interacting with other people. With the exception of hanging out with small groups of very close friends, I don’t value socializing for its own sake. What I do value is getting together to do something that “feeds” me—that might be studying scripture and discussing how the principles found therein inform and affect life, or it might be playing music. You might get me into a social gathering with a promise of fesenjoon (a delightful Persian dish) and strong black tea, but I will flee as soon as humanly possible.
And that, frankly, is one of the main attractions religion holds for me—my faith not only recognizes the need for individual and societal transformation, it offers the spiritual guidelines and practical tools necessary to effect that transformation. My dialogues with other believers of a variety of faiths have convinced me that this is what motivates a lot of people. There are a great number of us religious types who value faith because it offers both challenge and potential for transformation. We don’t want a faith that is “fun”. (If I want fun, I can go to a movie, a theme park, read a book, or write one.) We don’t want a faith-based social club. (When I want to “party”, I’ll go to a science fiction convention and hang out in the filk room.) We want a belief system that will call us out—that will put the responsibility for our spiritual welfare back on us and make better human beings of us.
Certainly, my faith community offers a network of individuals who hold the same basic beliefs and who are working on the same set of virtues. But it is those virtues themselves that, to most of us, have the real appeal. We are where we are because we each hope to transform our own character in a way that will exert a positive effect on the people our lives touch and on humanity in general. Obviously, it makes sense to actively pursue such transformation in an environment where it is supported—just as it makes sense to go to the gym to effect physical transformation.
Do faith communities exert a positive effect on people in this way?
Recent surveys carried out by a number of groups—including the Pew Foundation and Faith Matters—show that people engaged with religious communities (even secular spouses of religious people) are significantly more inclined to give of both time and resources to charitable causes than their secular peers. The surprise in the studies was that this was true of secular causes as well as religious ones and “liberal” causes as well as “conservative” ones. People of faith give more to secular causes than secularists do.
People from faith communities are also significantly more likely to be involved in the larger community, to be active in civic affairs. They are more inclined to offer what Muhammad referred to in the Qur’an as “small kindnesses” to strangers and neighbors.
This stands to reason. Groups support and enable behaviors. What behaviors they support will, naturally, depend on what values the group holds in common and what principles serve as a foundation for their activities. It should be no surprise that the principles underlying revealed religion (such as the “Golden Rule”) result in individuals and groups that are active in promoting general human welfare, and in caring for the poor and disenfranchised.
The big surprise should be when they don’t.
Next time: More God of the Month Club—the Identity Gambit