Missing the good of churchgoing

15 September 2010

Americans are wrong to reject the benefits of organ­ised religion, says Harriet Baber

LAST month, the novelist Anne Rice announced on Facebook that she had “quit Christianity” (Press, 6 August). “I found God,” she proclaimed, “but that doesn’t mean that I have to be a supporting member of any organised religion.”

Rice has now joined the ranks of the fastest-growing “religious group”in the United States — the unchurched. Most members of this group are, like her, religious believers who reject organised religion. Organised religion is an institution: it occupies offices and employs bureaucrats. Americans do not like institutions. They detest government and political parties in particular, but increasingly dislike organised religion.

One third of voters in the US are “independ­ents”, and are contemptuous of partisan voters, who, they believe, blindly follow their leaders instead of thinking for themselves. Almost one third of Americans are unchurched, and view churchgoers similarly: as uncritical and intellectually lazy.

But partisan voters and churchgoers are not uncritical devotees, as independents imagine: they are consumers. Citizens support political parties because political organisations have the clout to push agendas that individuals cannot promote effectively on their own. And churchgoers depend on organised religion to provide goods and services that they cannot provide for themselves: liturgy, church buildings, and staff to plan and execute services, maintain facilities, and raise funds to finance the operation.

Rice says that she will miss these amenities, but must nevertheless, in conscience, leave the Church: “I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. . . I refuse to be anti-Democrat. . . I refuse to be anti-science.” She does not want to be associated with Christians, whom she characterises as “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and de­servedly infamous”.

It is not hard to see why. Now that Christianity is not the cultural default any more, the public views it as a speciality item for belligerent conservatives who are anti-gay, anti-feminist, and anti-science. Being a Christian is embarrassing — and tiring. You get sick of being on the defensive, when, in the course of social bonding, friends segue into ritualised complaints about the religious Right.

Now that organised religion is popularly represented as a programme for promoting a conservative social agenda, supported by sexists and bigots, it will become just that, as others quit, too, like Rice.

One can, of course, follow Christ without the benefit of organised religion, but it is hard to understand why anyone would want to. Rice says that, as a religious independent, she will remain “absolutely faithful to the core principles of Jesus’s teaching”. If she means the Sermon on the Mount, that is a tall order. I cannot fathom why Rice, or anyone, would take on Jesus’s moral teaching — the tough stuff — but reject the good bits: the liturgy and art, festivals, rites of passage, and fun that organised religion provides.

Most people, however, do not regard organised religion as fun. They see it as a programme: you sign on, and promise to follow church rules on belief and behaviour. People reject such religion because they do not recognise that it is, in fact, a source of desirable goods and services: holiday celebrations and weddings, art, architecture, and all manner of other religious consumer products — and with the chance to sing thrown in.

The pious sniff at such consumerism. But why should we regard Christianity as a programme, in which religious believers knuckle under to the institutional Church, rather than as a source of religious consumer goods? The Church is a blessing, not a curse; a source of benefits, not burdens; a gift to us from Christ, who gave himself to be consumed by us.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.

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