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In praise of big religion

04 September 2015

by Harriet Baber

AS THE Culture Wars grind into their fifth decade here in the United States, the only thing about which everyone agrees is that Big is bad. The Right hates Big Government; the Left hates Big Business. Both Left and Right detest institutions, and everyone despises “organised religion”. The Religious Right insists that Christianity is not a religion at all, but a personal relationship with Jesus; the Irreligious Left is contemptuous of religion as such, and Christianity in particular.

It is not hard to see why we dislike Big. Almost everything in our lives now is big, mass-produced, and scripted, without peculiarity or charm. Customer-service representatives respond to our questions with flow-charted scripts; chain restaurants’ menus and décor are designed at corporate HQ.

But, even if big is bad, small is worse. Small towns are stifling: nice places to visit, but nobody wants to live there among a dearth of services and facilities. Gardening is pleasant, but no one wants the drudgery and tedium of subsistence farming. We imagine that we would like the simple life, but we choose otherwise.

Most of us live in urban areas where there is diversity, opportunity, and every sort of occupation and entertainment. Even if we visit the farmers’ market recreationally, we do most of our shopping in supermarkets. We choose big. And our choices reveal our preferences: where our treasure is, there is our heart also.

We choose big religion, too. Evangelicals abandon local conventicles in favour of large, thriving churches. Village churches are abandoned, while cathedral attendance shows improvement. We prefer big religion.

Yet we would prefer not to prefer it. We are embarrassed by the taste for big religion because we have all heard the story of how Constantine ruined the Church by endowing it; and we look back nostalgically to the Early Church, where small groups of Christians met to share a simple communal meal. Now we are told that the decline of religious practice may be a good thing: the collapse of mass-produced religion could revive the spirituality of small churches.

That is exactly what I am afraid of. Small-church spirituality is not for everyone. We enjoy it occasionally, but most of us do not want to live there. And there is no reason why we should. Big religion — fancy buildings and elaborate services, and all the sensual, splashy stuff of high church — is a source of pleasure. And pleasure is good.

If we lost music, art, wine, and all other sources of secular pleasure, we would be worse off. And if we lose big religion, our lives will be much poorer.


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

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