The Opiate of the Masses

"Religion is the opiate of the masses." -Karl Marx

Admittedly I have not been fond of religion since I attempted to tackle the twisted logic of the story of Job when I was in high school, and subsequently parted ways with my protestant, pentacostal upbringing. (If someone had told me that the story came out of an oral tradition and was not meant to be taken literally it might have helped). Nevertheless in recent years I've become much more tolerant of it. Both because I think tolerance is a good thing, and because I like being able to relate to 90 + percent of the people around me.

I have been a member, for almost a year now, of a very very liberal church. A church liberal enough to have no problem with an atheist bisexual such as myself being a member. This has gotten me to thinking about religion quite a bit. Furthermore, I happened to join the strategic planning committee at my church whose task is three fold; figure out who we are, what we want, and where we are going for the next 3 to 5 years.

The process of surveying, and studying the results of the information gathered from our congregation led me to a few startling discoveries. I say "startling" but in fact most of you will probably consider them common sense.

1. People tend to go to church to be around people they agree with. I do not mean that most people in a religious group expect everyone to agree with them, or shy away from disagreement. What I mean is that most people who choose to be involved in a religious community want to "fit in" on some level. If enough people in your community disagree with your views about the world, religion, or perhaps even your political views, you will probably start to feel out of place. You might go start looking for a church where you "fit in" better.

2. Most religious beliefs seem to be at least partially superstitious in nature. What do I mean by superstitious? Really I'm talking about many people's belief that certain actions or items will improve their luck, or will cause good things to happen to them independent of any direct action to bring about that outcome on their part. For example when people think that their are "hot" slot machines at casinos, or that only playing certain lines on a slot machine will improve their odds of winning this is generally considered superstition. Attributing your house not being destroyed by a tornado that destroyed your neighbor;s house because you had your lucky horseshoe, rabbit foot, or buddha hanging over the door is also considered superstition. Likewise, imagine if you started reading the bible regularly and your life miraculously starts getting better. If you attribute this to your new found habit of cracking open the "good book" regularly, I would call it superstition. Even I was a little wary, when I was a christian, of people who flocked to religion in hopes that good things would come to them, and threw it away when bad things happened. Ironically thats exactly what the story of Job is about. But is it really fair to single those people out, or is that in fact what most people seek in religion -some deity, being, beings, idea, system, practice, or behavior that will make their life better? -something that would decrease the likelihood of their loved ones dying in tragic accidents, improve the likelihood of a good harvest, decrease the likelihood of things falling apart, and increase the likelihood of everything working out just right?

Yes, religions do tend to be more complicated than that. Both Buddhism and Christianity are far more than gimmicks for improving one's fortune in life. Nevertheless there are millions (possibly billions) of people who follow both religions for that exact reason. I suspect a majority of the adherents of both these religions follow it on those simple grounds -kiss the Buddha in the morning, read the bible at night, attribute all fame and/or success to your creator, and blame god if you lose a kid in a boating accident.

3. Most religious communities cannot handle diversity. I should be more specific, of course. I'm not talking about ethnic diversity. Ethnic diversity is easy. As long as everyone agrees on the religious content, they can be ethnically as diverse as is humanly possible. Take a look at the Catholic church if you do not believe me. Now try knitting together a group of people that run the gamut of religious viewpoints. I know because my church is struggling with it now. They think that their problems are all personality conflicts, but I think it goes much deeper.

As someone who has to bite their lip when people talk about sending healing energy to others, the miraculous effect of prayer, and the amazing things that can be discovered with a deck of Tarot cards, I can only imagine what those people are thinking about me. I'm trying hard not to call their views silly, lacking evidence, nonsensical, or superstitious. But the fact is I cannot have the world view I have, and not see those beliefs that way. So I'm respecting their beliefs by keeping my mouth shut at the times when I have no real respect for the belief itself, and am attempting to be respectful of the person holding them. I can imagine what is going through their head when they hear about my belief that there are no mystical energies, that everything is explainable through science, and that we as humans are so great that we are in no need of any higher beings (nor is their evidence for such beings). You end up with a community that has a strangely high occurence of personality conflicts that cannot seem to be ironed out.

Likewise far more minor disagreements than god or no god tear apart religious communities with more confined religious beliefs. Divorce or no divorce, Christmas or no Christmas, King James or New International Version, this interpretation of revelation or that one, icons or no icons, all of these have lead to rifts and factionalizing of religious communities.

4. Church is always a social occasion. Okay this may not be the case with eastern religions, and I do not know much about islam, but in the U.S. church is as much about religion as it is about socializing. In fact I saw a show on the discovery channel once that suggested that the entire purpose of religions is in cementing the social bonds of a community. It gives the members of a community commonality. It makes them feel as if they belong together. We worship the same god, we have the same tattoos, we can make it through the winter together.

I had a few more thoughts but they seem to be getting broader in abstraction so I'll leave it at that. Church is about fitting in, being accepted, agreeing with people, socializing and cementing bonds with those people, finding some set of ideas to adhere to that will ultimately make everything work out (or at least make you more likely to accept the current state of affairs), and about differentiating yourself from all those that disagree with your religious beliefs. If you get some form of intellectual stimulation, or feeling of inspiration you are lucky at best. Neither of which seems to be sustainable indefinitely in any given community. In other words once you have been stimulated/inspired you may just outgrow your religious group and start seeking another.

There is one other view of religion/church that is popular. The idea is that religion is not about who you are, but is about what you do. In many churches this means acts of charity, and goodwill. Its a nice view, and many people at my church hold it. But given that every Sunday is not dedicated to helping others (nor every other Sunday, nor every third Sunday, nor really any Sunday), which happens to be the day most people participate in events at our church, I'm kind of skeptical of this view. Sure its a nice idea to have, but when push comes to shove, something else is bringing you to church every week.

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If you get some form of

If you get some form of intellectual stimulation, or feeling of inspiration you are lucky at best. Neither of which seems to be sustainable indefinitely in any given community. In other words once you have been stimulated/inspired you may just outgrow your religious group and start seeking another.

On this point, I agree completely. But…it’s not reflective of the content of the Bible. As a former “Pentecostal”, (by youthful indoctrination) I’m familiar with the emotionally charged nature of such a service. The fact is, there is a heavy metaphysical tone with that bunch.

Currently, I’m an unapologetic theist that’s not affiliated with any sect or community. Without giving a dissertation, I’ll simply say that Christianity was essentially hijacked by Roman intellectuals in the 4th Century. The ‘real’ baby of Truth has been all but drowned in the cultural bath-water.

Interesting post. You might

Interesting post. You might like this article citing an economist who thinks of church as consuming a jointly produced commodity:

Missing The Point What is

Missing The Point
What is the lure of religious community, that it can draw in even an atheist who cannot abide most of its doctrines? Part of it is probably the need for acceptance by some larger whole, even if one must contrive to suppress his disagreements with the t...

The same diversity problem

The same diversity problem exists in a group of athiests. My old college had an athiest/agnostic club and it attracted all types ... and without *any* common beliefs, there was little cohesion. A friend of mine went to the club for a while after I graduated but eventually stopped when she realized how different she was from all the other athiests. It was an "I told you so" moment.

In reading about China, I've

In reading about China, I've thought a lot about the difference between religion and superstition. The Chinese culture seems to be an extreme in its lack of religion. It has plenty of superstition: Feng shui is about not putting your house on a dragon's eye, and taking advantage of the fact that spirits can't turn corners and bounce off mirrors and trees (the trick is to trap good spirits in your house while deflecting the bad ones). Traditional Chinese beliefs seem to include gods, but gods that seldom notice the average person and, if they happen to notice that someone is fortunate, are likely to hurt them out of jealousy (a lot like traditional, corrupt government officials).

There are, of course, many Chinese that are religious (Buddhist, Christian, etc.), plus there's Taoism and ancestor-worship. But religion hasn't played the same wide-spread role in Chinese culture as in many others.

The Chinese have a very well developed set of superstitions. Then why shouldn't that be considered a religion? In my opinion, the difference is that there's no overall theory of how the world works and how people are supposed to live. Superstition is all about how to work the system to help yourself, and yes, people everywhere are looking for that and may join a religion to get it. But religions go farther - they're trying to explain the universe, and why we exist, and what our purpose is. You may not agree with the answers, but I think that most religions are trying to work out our responsibilities and obligations, as well as our rewards. They're trying to sort out the entire system, not just learn how to work it.

People go to church (and believe in religion, which is related but not the same) for many different reasons. Many people first go to church to try to figure out what they believe, and they naturally tend to end up with others that they believe are on the right track. If you're looking for a guide, you don't want to stick close to someone that you think is headed in the wrong direction.

It's expecting a lot to want most of the congregation to be stimulated into new discoveries and concepts every single week. For me, going to church is a reminder of the more important things in life, a chance to reflect about how I'm living and where I'm placing my priorities. And yes, it's social - if people are working towards a particular goal or trying to teach their children to aim towards certain values, it can help to be around others that are working towards the same end.

If we all had unlimited time, it would be nice to regularly associate with everyone of all beliefs, to listen frequently and in detail to every imaginable viewpoint. But, given that people only have so much time, wanting to regularly spend it with those with whom you agree doesn't necessarily signal prejudice or rigidity.

Hell, I've not 'fit in' much

Hell, I've not 'fit in' much at all since I popped outta
the box.

I don' know no better.

The hell with 'em if they can't take my jokes,
whoever they may be.

Yup... my church is a UU

Yup... my church is a UU church, and for the most part your description fits my church as well. Thats part of the point of not bothering to call someone's beliefs superstitious even though I may think that they are. We do not do that out of respect for the person. However if you try discussing politics you will get a different result entirely, and I've noticed that many of the people there are fine with differences of religious belief, but when it comes to politics, or basic differences of opinion on far more trivial matters they get really uncomfortable. They will decide they feel persecuted or out of place if everyone disagrees with them on a certain matter and they feel as if they are not being heard.

I have also encountered the occasional person who really is there to be in what they believe to be a politically left-leaning religious environment. They are the ones that make republicans, and libertarians feel unwelcome. But they are not the majority, and usually not a problem. They are just annoying if you happen to run into them during an election season.

I don't know how the church

I don't know how the church you've been attending identifies itself, but I have in the past few months started attending a Unitarian Universalist church (through a rather strange series of events). I've found that it is in fact the very lack of a unifying metaphysic that binds the church; it seems to me that people get along simply because they know they disagree. One of the reasons why I even bothered to come back a second week after my first visit was simply the fact that people there don't argue, they seek understanding, and pheonomenon that I've not seen elsewhere in quite awhile. As a cynical atheist, it has been amazing to me that I actually feel comfortable in a church setting.

"What is the lure of

"What is the lure of religious community, that it can draw in even an atheist who cannot abide most of its doctrines?"

he he he... Actually my church does not have any "doctrines," thats how I get away with being a member, not by suppressing my disagreement with others. There are plenty of atheists at my church and the lure is fellowship with other individuals, not any religion in particular. There is no common religion at my church. It is united by common values. The common values include the belief that every person is valuable and that every person has a unique spiritual path that they must explore and discover for themselves.

We also have wiccans, a couple jews, a few secular humanists, lots of new-agers, and tons of liberal christians. You are just as likely to see a deck of tarot cards as a bible at my church. In fact you are not likely to see either, except on rare occasions. And you are also not likely to hear a prayer in the service, because prayer is a contentious issue, in that most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of anyone speaking on behalf of everyone to a "higher being."

Anyhow I'm not talking about any "religious impulses." I'm talking about going to church which in my mind is entirely different from seeking any spiritual or religious fulfillment.

My church isn't a

My church isn't a "christian" church. It has no common religion, "fitting in" is another issue entirely. I personally do not aspire to "fit in" and never have. However it would be nice to be understood to some degree by other people, especially those I share a community with.

it is a waste of time to

it is a waste of time to explore religion or to accept it. religion is a waste. it is a provider of anecdotal evidence in social thought, it is rife with contradiction, and gives people the belief that in their faith they are "saved" or superior through their conviction. religion in all forms is a pathetic attempt to suppress free thought, and the fact that people attend church is merely a coincidental condition with human nature... the supposed feeling of community.

if people would spend more time on the practical matters that concern society, rather than ridiculous 2000 year old illusions, the world would no doubt benefit. why waste time exploring religion when those who are most convinced of it, the most pious, say that god cannot be understood... that god is so abstract, that we not dare question he word passed down through the ages? we should turn toward the evidence, and evidence states that there are problems far less existential in nature that should be pondered, more than the dribble, nonsense and trite dished out by the "moral majority."

if anything, we should hate religion with all our vigor and attempt to strike it from the earth. let people start to deal with people instead of god... what a state that would be, that people might not look into a bible and find truth, that they may find truth themselves, free of any ridiculous dogma.

for those of you who fit in with Christians just to "fit in," look around, there are plenty of atheists to be with. don't rely on religion to make friends, read a book, watch a movie, have thoughts, be kind, brave whatever... but do so independently of any book, and friends will follow.