Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Rejecting faith while affirming reverence ...

A couple of years ago, a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey surprised some by declaring that

atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

I don't consider that an unexpected finding; after all, if we think somebody is out to get us, it is only logical to try to get a handle on what they are up to. All the more informed groups have, at some times, experienced ostracism or even persecution from the less informed folks in the United States.

Now atheists have a book -- Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton -- addressed to increasing their knowledge of the beneficial aspects of religious practice without trying to convert them to theism. I'm in the theist camp myself, inclined to Christian belief, but I very much enjoyed de Botton's thoughts about the milieu I share with other believers. The guy is a charming writer of the hyper-clever and articulate sort that Britain seems to produce far more often than we do.

Here is a sample describing what he finds in the Catholic mass:

A Catholic Mass is not, to be sure, the ideal habitat for an atheist. Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible. It goes on for a long time and rarely overrides a temptation to fall asleep. Nevertheless, the ceremony is replete with elements which subtly strengthen congregants' bonds of affection, and which atheists would do well to study and on occasion learn to appropriate for reuse in the secular realm.

Catholicism starts to create a sense of community with a setting. It marks off a piece of the earth, puts walls up around it and declares that within their parameters there will reign values utterly unlike those which hold sway in the world beyond, in the offices, gyms and living rooms of the city. … a church, with its massive timber doors and 300 stone angels carved around its porch, gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane.

The composition of the congregation feels significant. Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values. The Mass actively breaks down the economic and status subgroups within which we normally operate, casting us into a wider sea of humanity.

… the Church asks us to leave behind all attachments to earthly status. It is the inner values of love and charity rather than the outer attributes of power and money that are now venerated. … Appreciating the reasons why we try to acquire status in the first place, the Church establishes conditions under which we can willingly surrender our attachment to class and titles. It seems to know that we strive to be powerful chiefly because we are afraid of what will happen to us without high rank: we risk being stripped of dignity, being patronized, lacking friends and having to spend our days in coarse and dispiriting surroundings. It is the genius of the Mass to correct each of these fears in turn.

… We may start to feel that we could work a little less feverishly, because we see that the respect and security we hope to gain through our careers is already available to us in a warm and impressive community which imposes no worldly requirements on us for its welcome. If there are so many references in the Mass to poverty, sadness, failure and loss, it is because the Church views the ill, the frail of mind, the desperate and the elderly as representing aspects of humanity and (even more meaningfully) of ourselves which we are tempted to deny, but which bring us, when we can acknowledge them, closer to our need for one another.

… If we have managed to remain awake to (and for) the lessons of the Mass, it should by its dose have succeeded in shifting us at least fractionally off our accustomed egocentric axes.

That is probably the rosiest, most optimistic, description of a Eucharist I've ever read. In real life, most church communities replicate the divisions of class (and race) that pervade their societies. But I like to think he has gotten to some essence of what our practice is meant to be about. He goes on to propose a nutty idea for an "Agape Restaurant," an imitation of church that he thinks would overcome some major social ills.

Thanks to the Agape Restaurant, our fear of strangers would recede. The poor would eat with the rich, the black with the white, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced, workers with managers, scientists with artists. The claustrophobic pressure to derive all of our satisfactions from our existing relationships would ease, as would our desire to gain status by accessing so-called elite circles.

Gosh, the guy sometimes reads like Paul of Tarsus: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one …" He just leaves out the "in Christ Jesus" part.

I have no idea what this book would mean to an atheist, but as a Christian I found it challenging and affirming of our better aspirations. If the atheists were to follow de Botton's suggestion that they "steal" the best of religion, we'd all be better off.

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