If this were the “religious” blog, instead of religious atheist, I would have an easy blog this week. It was a sermon given by a long time member of a community that I was once a part of, and now am only remotely. She summarized her history and weaved it in to the history of the community. She used scripture from Matthew 12:24 and the Greek story of Persephone as stories that relate to her personal story. It was really moving and a bunch of people cried. I could tell it in a way that would move some people, but for people who are not a member of that community or not familiar with a story of the kind of growth and healing that takes place in a community, it would probably not mean much. That story was from a church community.
On a similar note, I have exchanged a few e-mails with a guy who leads a community in Austin, TX called the Austin Community of Atheists. He once asked me to describe anything that a religious community has ever done that could not be accomplished by a secular group. I answered him with the stories of the people who started the abolitionist movement, the story of Moses (maybe just a fable, but one of slaves throwing off the yoke of their masters) and a couple others. He came back with how that could have been accomplished by any secular group.
Well, yeah, but the point is, it wasn’t. So, I’ve been asking myself this question. What is it that sets a religious community apart? What makes it different? Hearing that sermon this week made the answer obvious to me, but how do I relate that experience to others?
The simple answer of what sets a religious community apart is beliefs. However, I’ve been around a few religious communities, and many of them don’t restrict membership based on belief. The national church body may officially want you to believe something, but the individual church will not quiz you on every detail every time you walk in the door. I have researched the differences between denominations, but most people don’t. When I say to someone, “Why do you go to that church, they believe in Armageddon?”, their answer is usually, “I just like the community.” For the most part I’m fine with that answer, as long as the money they are putting in the collection plate doesn’t go to blowing up abortion clinics or similar extremes.
So, maybe the right question is what is community? That only took me about 15 years to figure out, so I won’t try to give a trivial answer. The best answer I know to the question of “what is community”, is that you have to experience it for yourself. That’s not an eloquent answer, and it’s not even really fair to expect someone to go immersing themselves in communities all over the place that may or may not be valuable. There are definitely “bad” communities.
I think what my atheist e-mail friend was asking, or maybe saying, is that anything that has been done by a religious community, didn’t actually involve any miracles or require the existence of a God. The stories in the Bible frequently involve people turning away from God, then when a leader, or the group turn back, they get a miracle. In the present, some communities will tell you that they prayed and someone who was sick, got better. Or that they prayed and accomplished a difficult project that did not seem logically possible. An atheist will tell you that people recover from illness all the time, even when doctors say they won’t, and illogical projects sometime succeed.
Back to the question of what is it that is different about a religious community. Without going into too much detail, the sermon I mentioned earlier was given by someone who started experiencing depression in her teens. She was part of a loving family, with a lot of Lutheran ministers in it, but they didn’t know a lot about teen depression. Not many people did at that time. A little later in life she happened upon the Walker Church community. Not only did she find friends, but some of those friends went on to found organizations and pass legislation that now support people like her. In turn she has helped many people. I doubt she would have been as productive a member of any other community.
That last statement is a difficult one to substantiate. I’m sure that there are some other communities that could have helped. Her immediate family did not have the resources, the public school system didn’t offer much, and I am not aware of any support groups that she could have found back in the mid 1970’s. So, one possible defining difference of a religious community is there acceptance of all as members. That does not pertain to all religious communities obviously, but it covers the ones that I like, so I’m sticking with it for now.
Of course, any group could choose to not discriminate, but it wouldn’t make sense in many of them. Greenpeace might benefit from having some mentally ill people on its board, but more likely it would be a hindrance. Mental illness is not their issue (I’m not classifying my sermon giving friend as mentally ill, I’m discussing a larger issue of inclusion now). Organizations working on mental illness or physical disability issues would more likely benefit from inviting people who had those issues. Walker Church didn’t have a goal of affecting policy on a State level regarding people who occasionally had bouts of depression. It happened because they welcomed all, and the people who came together discovered something others had not. They discovered the issues on a personal level, and they found the strength to work on those issues beyond their immediate circle. That is most likely to occur in a group that has a very broad vision, like bringing peace and harmony to the entire planet. I don’t know of any secular groups with that goal.
That’s not to say that there couldn’t be such a group, but organizations tend to grow out of some sort of tradition. Religious traditions go back thousands of years, when people didn’t know that the earth revolved around the Sun or believed they had to sacrifice a goat to make their crops grow. They also started traditions of accepting others, caring for the sick, and giving to the needy. As we learned about our universe and how our own minds work, some of the traditions were abandoned. The caring parts have stayed pretty well intact. Without the direct experience of a caring community and a sermon like the one I experienced last Sunday, that’s the best explanation I can give.