The first form of this essay was first published as on The Living Community website on May 10th, 2011.
In all cultures dating back as far as we know, one thing is constant: religion. In the past, religion was the glue that held cultures and societies together. You couldn’t really separate a people from their beliefs, and many wars were fought over the gods and their presumed desires and objectives for mankind.
This centrality of religion all began to shift, probably starting with the Greeks, but it really caught on fire during the enlightenment. The founding of the United States and other contemporary European societies coincided with the rejection of many of the prejudices and superstitions of religions. However, the past 100 years in the U.S. has shown the danger of this unending cycle of religious revival and adoption of the metaphysically inspired dogma. The ideas of the enlightenment may be intellectually sound, but they seemingly didn’t meet the psychological needs of huge sections of a large section of the populace and we have seen an upsurge in religious belief–particularly in fundamentalist religions. Not coincidentally, these are the religions that provide the tightest community support to the adherents.
At its foundation, religion filled an important psychological and social role in human society. It likely began as we evolved in small social groups that filled our social and physical needs. The rise of the nuclear family structure and away from large family groups inevitably meant the breakdown of group social structures. This allowed for smaller family units (i.e. nuclear families) and also enabled larger number of human strangers to reside in close proximity in peace. But this meant that you might not have a personal relationship with all of the people you interacted with. Religions evolved to meet those needs.
Religion became the cultural glue that can bind people even though they may not directly transmit culture through direct contact. It allowed for the expansion of the in group beyond those that we could socially interact with in an intimate fashion. That is a good thing and was the foundation for our modern society and the rise of villages, cites and nations.
Religions preside over the most important events of our lives: birth, coming of age, marriage and death. They provide individuals with context and meaning within the social structure. They provide a safety net. Religion ensures that we are all members of a community even when those who live in the closest proximity to us physically may be strangers. We all need the support of one another. Religion, more than any other social structure has provided this for this need.
The problem is that religion can also bring corruption and manipulation of the individual. Religions often get tangled up with beliefs and teachings about the afterlife and about the will of supernatural beings. These teaching are used to extract treasure and labor out of adherents in exchange for “salvation”. Teachings are often used to harmful psychological effect on the individual, such as guilt and shaming. The psychological health and well being of the individual is often sacrificed in deference to the perpetuation of the institution. Power seated individuals and institutions enrich themselves on the labor of the devout.
The last few years have witnessed the rise of a secular movement that rejects many of the mumbo-jumbo ideas that religions are based on. But these intellectual ideals have failed in providing something else to meet those social needs of individuals and communities that religions have often fulfilled. Atheists and critics may show where religions are wrong or dangerous, but they have failed to provide an alternative in which people can meet those vital social needs. As long as this problem persists, new religions will spring up to exploit some new metaphysical belief and adherents will join because of that need for social connection and support.
The time has come to create something positive that fulfills our needs and builds community, but avoids the institutional manipulation so common in religion that is fostered by need for other-worldly deliverance. The time has come to create a community that focuses on our common values and needs in this life and not the hypothesized next life. This is the challenge today facing the secular communities.