Religion for Everyone
Alain de Botton, Wall Street Journal
The decline of religion in the West has brought a decline in community spirit. Could the secular world draw useful lessons from religious life? offers new ways to find shared meaning.
One of the losses that modern society feels most keenly is the loss of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness that has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, by the pursuit of contact with one another primarily for individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.
In attempting to understand what has eroded our sense of community, historians have assigned an important role to the privatization of religious belief that occurred in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century. They have suggested that we began to disregard our neighbors at around the same time that we ceased to honor our gods as a community.
This raises two questions: How did religion once enhance the spirit of community? More practically, can secular society ever recover that spirit without returning to the theological principles that were entwined with it? I, for one, believe that it is possible to reclaim our sense of community—and that we can do so, moreover, without having to build upon a religious foundation.
Insofar as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centered on the worship of professional success. We sense that we are brushing up against its gates when the first question we are asked at a party is “What do you do?,” our answer to which will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned.
In these competitive, pseudo-communal gatherings, only a few sides of us count as currency with which to buy the goodwill of strangers. What matters above all is what is on our business cards. Those who have opted to spend their lives looking after children, writing poetry or nurturing orchards will be left in no doubt that they have run contrary to the dominant mores of the powerful, who will marginalize them accordingly.
Given this level of discrimination, it is no surprise that many of us choose to throw ourselves with a vengeance into our careers. Focusing on work to the exclusion of almost everything else is a plausible strategy in a world that accepts workplace achievements as the main tokens for securing not just the financial means to survive physically but also the attention that we require to thrive psychologically.
… Consider Catholicism, which 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 confines there will reign values utterly unlike the ones that hold sway in the world beyond. A church gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane.
… The Church does more, however, than merely declare that worldly success doesn’t matter. In a variety of ways, it enables us to imagine that we could be happy without it. Appreciating the reasons why we try to acquire status in the first place, it establishes conditions under which we can willingly surrender our attachment to it.
… Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.
… Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism have made significant contributions to political life …
From “Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion” by Alain de Botton, to be published March 6 by Pantheon. Copyright by Alain de Botton.
(18 February 2012)
Suggested by EB contributor Cecile Andrews.
Many other religions should be mentioned, such as Islam, Confucianism, and the wide variety of indigenous traditions. New Age too has much too offer.
The other side of the truth is the tremendous harm done in the name of almost every religion and spiritual tradition. Not to mention the various secular belief systems. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Towards a Prophetic Politics
Robert Jensen, YES! Magazine
Does God take sides in the elections? Is there a voters’ guide hiding in our holy books? Should we pray for electoral inspiration?
Secular people tend to answer an emphatic “NO” to those questions, as do most progressive religious folk. Because religious fundamentalists so often present an easy-to-caricature version of faith-based politics—even to the point of implying that God would want us to vote for certain candidates—it’s tempting to want to banish all talk of the divine from political life.
But a blanket claim that “religion and politics don’t mix” misunderstands the inevitable connection between the two. Whether secular or religious, our political judgments are always rooted in first principles—claims about what it means to be human that can’t be reduced to evidence and logic. Should people act purely out of self-interest or is solidarity with others just as important? Do we owe loyalty to a nation-state? Under what conditions, if any, is the taking of a human life justified? What is the appropriate relationship of human beings to the larger living world?
These basic moral/spiritual questions underlie everyone’s politics, and our answers are shaped by the philosophical and/or theological systems in which we find inspiration and insight. Since everyone’s political positions reflect their foundational commitments, it doesn’t seem fair to say that those grounded in a secular philosophy can draw on their traditions, but people whose political outlooks are rooted in religion have to mute themselves.
Rather than trying to bracket religion out of politics, we should be discussing how religious traditions can play a role in a healthy politics, and one productive place to start in the context of the Christian tradition is Walter Brueggemann’s new book, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word. Building on the book for which he is most known—The Prophetic Imagination, first published in 1978 with a second edition in 2001—Brueggemann moves beyond sectarian politics and self-satisfied religion to ask difficult questions about our relationship to power. He makes it clear that taking the prophetic tradition seriously means being willing to make those around us—and ourselves—uncomfortable.
(18 February 2012)
Suggested by EB contributor Hans Noelder. Robert Jensen is an EB contributor.
Le Réseau québécois pour la simplicité volontaire
Le Réseau québécois pour la simplicité volontaire (RQSV) réunit des personnes qui veulent vivre et promouvoir la simplicité volontaire comme moyen d’améliorer leur propre vie et de contribuer à édifier une société plus juste et plus durable.
Adopté par l’Assemblée générale du RQSV, le 27 avril 2003
Le RQSV veut aider ses membres et la société en poursuivant des objectifs :
- de regroupement en appuyant les diverses formes de rassemblement et d’échanges entre les personnes intéressées par la simplicité volontaire ;
- d’information en faisant connaître les multiples avantages, motivations moyens concrets, aussi bien individuels que collectifs, de simplicité volontaire ;
- d’appui en encourageant le développement et la mise sur pied d’initiatives locales aussi bien qu’internationales qui vont dans le sens de la simplicité volontaire ;
- de recherche en approfondissant les possibilités et les conséquences sociales, culturelles, économiques et politiques de la simplicité volontaire ;
- et de transformation politique en mettant publiquement en évidence l’impact de nos choix individuels et collectifs, de même que l’urgence de choix alternatifs pour un monde plus juste et plus durable.
(accessed 18 February 2012)
Aussi: Carnet- simplicité volontaire.
Let us be Human: Christianity for a collapsing culture
Sam Norton, Energy Bulletin
Author Sam Norton writes about his book, Let us be Human: Christianity for a collapsing culture:
It’s the sort of book that (I hope) someone conversant with Peak Oil etc could give to a friend who is a committed Christian, and explains, not just the basic problems but *why* Christians should be concerned about it, how the real problems arose, and what in Christian terms should now be done. It isn’t about addressing Peak Oil etc directly (e.g. prepare to use less fuel, advice about growing your own vegetables etc), it’s more about generating the required virtues that will enable those steps to then be taken. So it’s like the undercoat before putting on the paint.
The publisher writes:
We live in a time of escalating crises and environmental disasters – how should the church understand them, and how should the church respond to them? In this short, readable and punchy book, Sam Charles Norton argues that the fundamental problem of our time is a spiritual one – that we have forgotten what it means to be wise – and that the path for the faithful through this time of crisis is to re-establish the priority of worship. Only by becoming more distinctively Christian can we engage constructively with the collapse of our culture.
(7 February 2012)