Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Religion: Its birth, purpose and uses
I follow the Non-religious nerd's blog which is a relatively new blog documenting one person's struggles aganist the bindings of religion. This guy is like an extreme atheist, sacrificing alot of comfort within his family and friends to struggle aganist the irrationality that is religion. I admire him and agree with him in some way, this is a stand that dictates to the world that it can and should immediately abandon all vespices of belief in the supernatural. This is the basis for the universal atheist argument, Abandonment of beliefs in supernatural due to illogicality and disparity to science present in these arguments. However such a level of atheist activism is fundamentally incompatible in my life. My family is Kenyan and there religion which in our circle is Christianity is highly integrated to the social identity and dynamic. Do not get me wrong, Far from implying that America is perfect. I am saying that America is more open to secularism than the third world is. In Africa, a change in religious stand is almost always guaranteed to end some friendships, increase tension in close relationships like family or kin ,start some feuds which might be bloody in some cases and generally become a big negative point in your social life. These events would be less likely in the educated, secularly organized and more stable state society of the U.S.A . However there are still quite alot of religional social structures that have a great deal of control with varying ranges of importance and influence in America and in the world which can be observed in personal philosophies and with communal ties and also even governmentally.
I recently was able to attend a newly formed church named New Life and it was quite different from the regular church that my parents take us to i.e. baptist church. The most obvious difference was of course the amount of resources and funding involved in both church. The baptist church is about 6 to 10 times larger than new life with adjacent facilities like a gym and a basketball court, meeting halls e.t.c. also it has much more sound and lighting equipment than new life. In contrast, the new life building was a single building with a small parking lot. The other noticable difference is in organization, while the southern baptist church is quite organized, new life church is disorganized and highly anarchic. The church members were doing all sort of strange things, running, babbling nonsense,doing the egyptian(literally!), waving their arms e.t.c. The thing that worried me were the children attendants. Since new life did not have a dedicated child care center, Toddlers less than five were being essentially left to their own devices running around the church playing with anything they could find. One of these kids was able to get a hold of a severed curtain rod with a silk cloth attached called the 'Spirit Flag' which is used by the church for its praising and worshiping liturgy. I watched with horror as this kid ran around with this deadly hazard while fully functioning adults did nothing but continue with their stupid praise ritual of doing the Egyptian with their eyes closed. When I contrast these two religious organization's place in the local community , it brings to light some of the invisible sway of religion on the state of society.
When I saw this kid's behaviour and surrounding reaction towards it, I thought of the higway that religion has built to lead the child or other children from their innocent and curious play to the hippie like belief state that leads people to go to church to do the egyptian, or babble like madmen expecting reward. Innocent but unhelpful behavior like the spirit flag waving in church is reinforced and the child is conditioned to do this, maybe with attention or praise or other emotional need from parents or other church members as a reward. Later on the child looks for reason or thought behind action, and the church being the 'helpful' guardian that it is uses emotional manipulation to encourage the child to adopt church ideology. It might for example scare the little guy with hell, or it might prey on emotions in social dynamic like fear of alienation or disgust at strange or unfamiliar attributes,conducts or traits or yearnings for friendship,communion and even companionship to woo the kid into Christianity. In general, The religious community will exert its accumulated influence to modify this kid's mindset little by little shaping the resulting adult human into a cog for their respective religious structure. This theory seem non-representative of the espied role of the church and counter-intuitive to common logic of causation but it is important to analytically think about these organizations not merely believe common logic. It is also important to note that most psychological theorems agree,social forces might be triggers but they usually are not usually causal agents. We can more accurately observe and account for the efficacy relation in social forces with a perspective of correlation. In this case, The parents of this kid were staunch christians who encouraged the kids playfulness instead of discouraging it for obvious safety and civil reasons and furthermore would undoubtedly reinforce church theology irregardless of observed logical fallacies . The pastor who had observed the behaviour of the child, rather than stopping the kid from playing with dangerous objects(spirit flag) used this event as an opportunity to call the parent infront of the church to point out some obscure "truth" about god's will he had seen in the child's eyes. It is kind of ironic and sad at the same time since the pastor seemed to care more about to unraveling estoric truths from the little kids eyes rather than helping protect them from the danger of being impaled by the spirit flag the kid was holding, all the while responsible and grown human beings around the child became nothing more than safety hazards doing their crazy dances with closed eyes.
As such we can say that in general, religions specifically in our case christianity has a considerable amount of power or influence in the individual lives of its followers, at times being agreeable but sometimes not. It is undoubtedly correct to say that the people who take advice from the church are somehow manipulated for the churches benefit with and without their knowledge. In today's society, American Christianity fosters in church going individuals opposition to evolution ,reprogenetics, rational study of the cosmos and many other things, in general the scientific spirit or basic scientific tenets . The religion also promotes certain political and cultural veiwpoints, the church for example is a key player against homosexuality and abortion and safe sex and promoting homophobia, sanctity of life and abstinence. Christianity is also pointed as a quick fix for many issues, Pastors and preachers all over America hail their christianity to be able to heal relationship woes, mental sickness, disabilities or illnesses whether curable or terminal. The power of this religion in individual lives is terrifying!
In this particular service, a teenage boy was being prayed for because of a medical issue. There were others like a woman with knee problems or a guy with financial troubles but the young mans case is more analogous to many christian believers. Dozens of people surrounded the boy and masked him with their hands. One of the older men got hold of one of the dangerous spirit flags and started waving it around presumably collecting the invisible holy ghost for him and they then proceeded to ramble quite loudly herded around this young man. Thinking of the expectations ,fear,hope and confusion surrounding this young man and his family was saddening, how would it affect him when the supernatural beliefs fail him? How was he feeling then and how would he be feeling after the inevitable letdown he will experience? It reminded me of another time when my parents took me to a church which was resided in an african american community in Mobile. The pastor of this church being more socially vocal of his beliefs than I was used to insisted on laying his hands on me for whatever the reason, which I refused since I was a professed atheist and it made me quite uncomfortable. The pastor then took it upon himself to come to my seat to do his mumbo jumbo for me! He purposefully ignored my wishes just to probably increase his influence in the church, I was so angry at this pastor guy, annoyed at being at the church, paranoid and fearful that I might be doing something sacrilegious that might offend the church and my parents at the same time ,my brother was seated next to me laughing his ass off! The encounter was vexing! Trying to wisely and analytically solve your personal issues while dealing with the frankly irrational atmosphere of the yelling, preaching and dancing of the egyptian that is religion and coming up with a logical solution is quite difficult and takes a negative toll on ones good spirit and happiness. It is sad then for me to point out many people are only doing this dance (of religion) because of the manipulative and bordeline portentous powers that Christianity or religion has in their individual life.
If religion has this much influence in our individual lives, how much power does religion have in society? There were three schools of thought in classical sociology, each led by its own influential philosopher, each with their own view of religion role in society. Karl Marx was arguably the most known of the three philosopher, known more for his controversial theories of class struggles he however had dedicated himself to "doing morally-neutral sociology and economic theory for the sake of human development" to aid the upheaval of capitalism, he subsequently made postulations on religion to aid the revolutions he saw as inevitable. In this framework of mind, Marx viewed religion as a tool capitalism used to mollify grievances of economic and social inferiority from the common man by creating different dimensions albeit imaginary that the poor guy could compete if not defeat the rich guy i.e. spiritual riches. This sentiment of religion being used quite often in individual life as a tool to assuage perceived problems,injustices or distresses is widespread in the atheist realm. One of Karl Marx famous lines used repeatedly in many secular publications reads "religion is the opiate of the masses" hinting that even in sociology, religion is thought of to an extent as a delusion useful to some.
Many sociologists however were less concerned with the mindset of the individual or the thoughts or forces bringing about religious belief but more with the functions of religions in general on its respective societies. Emile Durkheim, one of these early positivists insisted that religion is not restricted to the imaginary. Religion according to him was an expression of society. After studying religion in primitive Aborigine societies, he postulated that beginnings of religion was when "We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves, which is our social life, and give that perception a supernatural face." Durkheim's Ideas are hard to grasp at first since his ideology and wording terms society as collective conscience and includes complicated ideas of moral, economic and labor regulation but his ideas are easier to see in practice. He links the complexity of religious structure in society to the complexity in society for example While primitive tribal societies usually have totem-like animistic religions, Complex societies i.e. State societies are usually dominated by highly complex more universal religions usually deisms. Even in singular cases, if we were to define what church or personal religion means to the individual, the most important and visible tie probably would be in regional,state, social lines rather than universal absolutist terms . Durkheim never set a rigid definition of religion though, causing subsequent sociologist to use his ideas for behavior surrounding civil religions i.e. fans of automobiles or music or movements or even sports teams and emotions like patriotism e.t.c.. His ideas however have have alot of credit for shedding light to the obscure role that religion many times usually occupies as the effective face and identity of society.
All these analyses major on looking for general truths in many religions, however it is more likely to find specific truths about a religion by studying each specific religion individually. The great antiposivist sociologist Max Weber pioneered this systematic study of religion, he did not believe there was alot of causation in relation with these social organizations rather more in coorelation as such rather than look for hard social facts, he looked for links, list of events, cummulative sentiments, emotions or other factors in history by following past,present,communal and environmental trends.He postulated that one must examine each religion to find the distinct forces behind it to fully understand it. This philosophy is more famous under the german term that he used "Verstehen" or a more ambigous term i.e."Methodological Atheism". The basic tenet established by Weber is to make religious sense of each religious sentiment, motivation or action in its own context. He reasoned that due to the many various influences on religious theology through individual, communal, communal and maybe even primal forces, The architectures or articles of truth of the many religions of the world are virtually impregnable to sweeping simplifications of causes,belief structuring or systematized continuation epistemes like the ones presented by many sociologist. In the process of leading by example, Weber researched and wrote alot about the world religions in his time; Hinduism, Buddhism, Puritanism(and its Influences on capitalism); however his research is not really in use today. It is mostly only his ideas that have survived.
As such religions role in society is usually quite wide spread and hard to determine in each case. To muddle the scenario further, There is alot more modern and raw data that are produced on this subject by modern anthropology than there is by sociology, in fact most of today's research on religion is conducted in the field of anthropology but due to the many intersections to other studies is used in other fields. There have also been influential thoughts presented by anthropological sources contained in many ethonograpic studies, comparative religion study,phenomenology of religion ideology,the rational choice theorem where religion is veiwed as a system of bodies of language and practices that compensate for some physical lack or frustrated goals and alot more ideas that assists in the understanding of the subject, however the efforts in this essay have limited goal of just understanding religions place in individual life and society. The ideology in anthropology are also much harder to grasp and do not expressly concern themselves with understanding religion in society unlike ideology in classical sociology.
According to all these sociological theorem, Religion's role in society has alot of groundwork in fundamental nature of individual human being. My own personal opinion of religions role in society is the same as the way i view a series of controllers. The life of a person is a great experiment, From childhood, people are generally pushing button and observing reactions. Children being motivated by curiosity are the greatest button pushers. They will experiment with anything, from two cups and a string to their mothers wellbeing and sanity for any reaction they can get. Then as they grow up they learn certain niches or vices or routines of buttons they can use for their own specific purposes like how they can exert influence on other people for their distinct aims using these buttons. There are many devices to be used in this nature finances, emotions, physical objects e.t.c. But religion is one of the greatest tools known personally and socially that can be used to acheive these type of goals. The fundamental nature of religious beliefs or faith by definition almost always implies certitude even where there is absence evidence or proof. As such an individual follower of a given religion is unlikely to question his or her religious doctrine on a given view the same way he or she examines normal veiws making it possible that in an aggregate sense religion can be and is used as a sort of manipulator, An ordered set of knobs,buttons and switches used for many purposes whether personal,national or any other goals in any other category.
In todays society, we see various uses of religion. For example, many people agree that Religion has great use as a mode of relegation of culture. Rituals, ideas, views, words and text are usually passed down from generation to generation with religious context before gaining a place in secular society. In other cases religion can be used to encourage, defend and justify almost anything from negative sentiment to questionable action (Religious terrorism). Religion has also had extensive use in politics For example, there has been no outright non-Christian american president, and even though there have been some atheist and Muslim(Keith Ellison) senators, they have been in the minority.In speeches or public forum, prayer or religious language is usually used(Obama's Afghanistan Speech, Bush's War On Terror speech). It has been in great agreement that there have been many regimes that have used religious argument for control historically that jewish kings doctored religious text to increase their dominion on their subjects, also there have been and still are a number of religious states.
After the visit to New Life, my parents have gone back to the local baptist. I am as such able to compare these two churches in more detail. While the atmosphere at New Life seems more young and vibrant, the future of The southern baptist group is more brighter.This is due to the organization present in The Baptist Church. For example Last sunday when we went to the baptist church, we were ushered into their youth program for bible study. Then instead of normal bible study, the teacher decided to read us a christmas story, A really heartwarming story about a given woman benefits from philanthropy during christmas.It was really a touching story but its content has nothing to do with the point i am trying to make. The story being told in the baptist church is one of many examples of a tradition being relegated. Even though the teller of this particular tale and other similar tales might give personal and religious reasons for it , Max Weber would probably say that we can analytically surmise the purpose it has and see that it is a component or one of the tools used to create comfort, warmth and good cheer in the church to lure and insulate attendants away from their seasonal difficulties, be they winter blues,yearly or monthly financial difficulties, new year worries and/or the general commercial atmosphere that currently surrounds x-mas. There can be no analogue group session in New life for there is no bible study and the whole church is relatively new and non-denominational as such there are no agreed upon tradition or set procedures to use in this holiday.
This difference in organization is not only seen in tradition and theology, but it is also present financially,physically and communally. The budgets at the baptist church would seem more balanced and rigorously checked than in new life to the casual observer. The seating arrangement present and also buildings are better at the baptist church as compared to new life, The baptist church has even hires police officers on sunday to help cross the road. The baptist church has a notably well organized online community with myspace and facebook chapters as well as sponsoring various community functions while the new life church probably can't even compare. I could further illustrate my point by comparing communion in the two churches, In The baptist church communion is a highly scripted event. Each usher knows where and when to pick up what plates, where to pass them and when to pass them and when to receive his communion. In new life church the ushers were fumbling and almost tripping over each other taking over twice the amount of time ushers at the baptist church take to collect the plates from the pastor, My parent got the bread plate about five times without receiving the wine plate at all which was midly disheartening and confusing, during actual partaking of communion it could be noticed that the choir at new life had very poorly tuned instruments since even when the choir members stopped playing their electric pianos, a preset echo feature kept producing sound for about 3 minutes afterwards.The same could be noticed from other facets of their organization i.e. we had to remain outside in the cold till the beginninng of the service due to tardiness of the ushers,the toilets were not that clean,the power point presentation in new life church seemed of poor quality e.t.c. As such it is easy to point out which church is part of a 42,000 church Christian denomination and which is a non affiliated singular entity.
If we step back and look at the dynamic from a wider lens, it is clear that religious structures have alot of influence in their enviroments whether tribal, communal, national, continental or any other body that shares religious organization. Religion in way can be veiwed in a general sense as this mass of interests and/or conglomeration of emotional energy that has the will and power to affect human society positively or negatively. Christianity is the greatest of modern religions and as such it can also be categorized to be of this format. I wish to point out that this religion has had great consequences good and bad on the world and that its function and role in our society will continue to grow and change in the near future. If we examine the southern baptist convention's place and history within america, It is amazing to point out that Bill Clinton,Al Gore, Mike Huckabee and Jimmy Carter are well known southern baptist members. It is also interesting to view the relationship between political leadership and the Southern baptist leadership. Billy graham, A key southern baptist leader and founder has had a personal audience with every sitting United States President from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. He has also been instrumental in some of these political candidate's election and re-election bids. His most notable influences was with president Nixon where he was an official advisor, and even once being offered an ambassadorship position.His son has also been widely recognized in political circles while also being criticized for having a role in violence in Sudan's Darfur conflict by defending proselytism and refusing to aid peace negotiations. There have been other great church leaders that have been recognized politically. There have also been a great many state governors that participate in or at least take advice from the southern baptist convention. Barring direct political involvement, the Southern Baptist denomination is a great lobbying force aganist abortion, homosexuality and immigration legislation and uses its power with word of mouth and in the fourth estate(press) for these purposes.It is only in the last weeks of 2009 that the southern baptist convention is officially apologizing for endorsing slavery in the past.
This level of influence is present throughout the history of religion in this case, christianity and its many branches. The Roman catholic church, undoubtedly the greatest religious force to date has had a historical cornucopia of activities in this aspect. It had great power in the roman empire, retained alot of this power throught the ages in many of the western states, was key in the inquistions, witch trials, great exploration e.t.c. It still fully controls a country, and retains alot of influence in other countries. The East orthodox church has had a similar history and probably even greater since it is older and arguably more spread out in the world than even the roman catholic church. We can trace similar patterns within Anglican, Apostolic, Oriental and other church Denominations.
The purposes and aims religion seems to entail then are mixed. Even though beneficial actions that can be derived out of the good that is referenced by religious thought, It can be noted that sometimes with good wills and intents we find ourselves using religion for morally disagreeable goals and intents or sometimes bad and outrightly sinister sentiments and emotions have been used to lead the world forward.This is referenced in Durkheims who says that religion is a view that gives light to the elements of society with a supernatural face. It is therefore imperative to thoroughly examine and not ignore proof whether scientific, social or simply logical in respect to religion since it is possible for religion to have influence over you, the individual or us, the community that you would not want it to.