The Culture of Religion

One of the reasons I very rarely dive into the discussions around these parts about religion, atheism, and Richard Dawkins’ latest book is because, as a moderately observant Jew, most of what is said is utterly irrelevant to my life as a Jew. To explain further, I want to turn it over Shakes, who discusses the role religion plays for many people, particularly in rural areas (italics mine):

…in large swaths of America, religion is primarily social in nature. Much of the country consists of small towns (like the one in which I live) where there are more churches than movie theaters, bowling alleys, and bars combined–and no hint of any markers of “high-end culture” like concert halls, opera houses, symphony, or theater; nor evidence of multicultural social activities like blues or jazz clubs; and festivals (generally built around some sort of food item–Rib Fest, Popcorn Fest) are seasonal. Necessarily, churches become a focus of many social activities for residents of these towns, and the Saturday Social, Friday Fish Fry, Tuesday Fellowship, monthly pot-lucks, and bingo night attract to the local church many people the intensity of whose religiosity wouldn’t suggest spending so much time there, were it not the hub of social activity in their community.
Many of these people are not disbelievers so much as casual adherents to the belief system that underlies their primary social structure. They haven’t dedicated a whole lot of critical thought to the religion, not only because it isn’t required of them, but because church-going, both religiously and especially socially, is just something everyone they know does. To question the religion behind it is to risk abandoning the only social game going in town–which is partly why the same poll also found that only 93% of self-described born-again Christians, 76% or Protestants, 64% of Catholics, and 30% of Jews are “absolutely certain” that God exists, and also partly why there are so many religious folks who don’t seem to have the foggiest idea what their religions actually teach. Some of it is just bloody-minded ignorance; some of it is that a lot of people go to church for reasons other than religion.

This isn’t to say that the beliefs don’t matter, but many people, in my experience, who are religious are actually quite syncretic in their beliefs. While this might seem logically inconsistent, for many people (but not the Christopathic Uruk-hai) religion also has a partial role as culture. For others, it is mostly cultural and something they like doing. For them, the underlying beliefs just don’t figure in their day-to-day lives. This is why so many of the debates at ScienceBlogs about religion seem sterile to me: until the subject of religion as civilization and culture is raised, I think arguing about theism, atheism, and dogma is kind of silly. These debates just aren’t relevant to many who live a religious life because for many, heterodoxy is far less important on a daily basis than heteropraxy.

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5 Responses to The Culture of Religion

  1. Stogoe says:

    This, I think, is going to be the biggest challenge for those wanting to shove religion out the airlock. Getting people to admit they’re only doing it for the companionship of fellow humans is a first step.

  2. writerdd says:

    Excellent post, thanks! I’ve been waiting for someone to say this.

  3. Chad Orzel says:

    That’s a much more elegant and concise way of saying what I said here, in many more words. Thanks.

  4. Garrett says:

    I know a girl who follows both Christianity (don’t remember which kind at the moment) and Hinduism, purely for cultural heritage reasons. It’s not so much a belief as it is a tradition.

  5. Ontogeny says:

    Right on the nail. This post reminds me of my wife’s hometown (pop. ~4000) in West Texas where there aren’t many places to go OTHER THAN church for entertainment. Much of the social activities of the community revolve around what’s happening at the church on a given day. Truth be told, the only unfortunate alternative to church activities is the local Wal-mart…ugghh.

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