Social capital and ‘Disorganized Religion’

If you’ve ever traveled in Europe you might have been puzzled to find their churches empty, converted into tourist attractions. Despite all of the talk of American religiosity, there is reason to think that the same trends are at work in the US.

A post at Forbes revisits the notion of “Disorganized Religion” as the dominant religious phenomenon in the US. Rather than a sign of religious enthusiasm, it seems to be a symptom of the decline of Christianity. That decline is partially due to weaker religiosity, but it also relates to the thinning out of our social capital institutions. As a sign of the wider devolution of power away from traditional institutions, it helps explain the growing brittleness of our political system.

44 Comments

  1. Profile photo of EJ EJ

    Fifty:
    Re Rationality: I’m not referring to the method of thought, which you rightly praise, but the movement founded by Hanlon and Yudkowsky by that name, which attempted to derive an entire code of morality from rational first principles and which has now largely dissipated. I should probably have clarified.

    Re movement atheism: Perhaps it’s my temperament or perhaps it’s my culture, but I much prefer to do things together with others who feel the same way that I do. I associate with people who have the same opinion on music as I do, the same hobbies, the same politics; and so it feels strange not to associate with people who have the same opinion on religion. (Not all these groups overlap: there are a lot of people I associate with for musical purposes who explicitly believe in magic, and my main political groups are fairly divided between the godless and the religious. Society exists on a Venn diagram.)

    Organised atheism has the side effect of allowing us to lobby for secular causes more effectively too, which I hope you’ll agree is a good thing.

    As for whether this makes it like a religion, I’d argue that this is an unusual definition of a religion. Is every group which has a moral code a religion?

    1. EJ – I think rumors of the demise of Rationalism, (per your usage), are premature. If not from reason, from whence should come moral standards? We both agree ancient Iron Age texts written by people who didn’t even know the earth went around the sun are poor places to start.

      Very few of my friends are atheists. This provides a target-rich environment! (All in good humor, of course!)

      On organized atheism as a tool for social change – agreed in toto.

      To your last statement, organized religions tend to get involved in all manner of stuff that has not a thing to do with their core dogma. Like atheism has nothing whatever to do with “progressivism” per se. In fact, atheism has nothing to do with a moral code, either – though as I mentioned above, it is perfectly reasonable to assemble one without recourse to religion or mysticism.

  2. Most churches are small like mine. We have about 100 people in worship on Sunday. Being part of the church governance I spend a lot of time , unpaid with church adminstration with other leaders.

    Currently our main focus is with children in a poor rural part of Orange County Florida. We feed them, provide clothes and recreation for them since little to do in rural areas for children. The area is in a full fledged epidemic of opioid addiction and poverty. Most of the residences in our area are white but our church is diverse and several of our associate pastors are Black. Two in particular, retired are serving this area.

    This is the majority of the Church not the mega Churches Chris talked about. BTW we have many people in our congregation who are PHD holders. One of PHD holders uses our church buildings to runs a small college. We have quite a few former members of the military. Two were officers in special forces retired now. One of them taught at West Point. The West Point guy in his early seventies was asked to return to teach since many officers have resigned due to Trump’s election and his clown show. We are a pentecostal church. I am sure this is not how Fifty views the Church. But it is the reality.

    I personally have seen a few things unexplainable. Once while in Haiti a woman severely sprained her ankle. I and others prayed for her and it became instantly un-sprang. During that trip a woman broke her thigh bone. Several women who were nurses prayed for her. Then one of them perfectly set it in the field without x rays. A miracle one critical care nurse informed me as it happen. She did not know for sure but told me when the break was x-rayed we would know then. Haitian Christian brothers got her to a hospital several hundred miles away that had the means to care for her. A Seven Day Adventist one ran by missionaries BTW. Sure enough it was a perfect set.

    My niece a toddler at the time on the wife side, was dying from severe diabetes. Her family prayed and the next time her blood sugar was checked it was completely normal. Still normal today decades later.

    This was told to me by a nurses aid in the home caring for my wife’s grandmother. A tornado was bearing down on the nursing home. The old folks were being evacuated to the basement. Agnes was missing the aid went to her room looking for her. This old prayer warrior had the curtains drawn on her sliding glass door standing in it with arms uplifted praying in tongues. The tornado got to the home and then lifted up , went over the home and sat down on the other side and went on it’s way. This is a sample of a few things I have seen or got from reliable witnesses. Unexplainable things happen all the time all around us.

    Our country has had several great awakenings. We are due for another one and I am expecting. I am not ignorant about science and spent 30 years in a laboratory . But the key is not ignorant. Science is a useful but cannot explain every phenomenon. I am not as dystopia as Chris is about Christianity and our country. We shall see.

    1. The Great Awakening, a religious revival which helped in part to foster the American fight for independence and then drove a stake into the idea that God runs the affairs of men on Earth with property (and later expanded to include all men including non-land owners, which occurred after a struggle to redefine property and financial assests to not including other people , then expanded to women, then people of other differing skin color). The great awakening is we can do as we wish or not, on earth, without fear of divine intervention.

    2. Stephen – Did you ever wonder why ‘miracles’ only happen to people with ailments or injuries that are subject to spontaneous remission? Does this god of yours have something against amputees? No need to go into details on your examples. You know well enough all of these allow for rational explanations.

      Look – there are all sorts of things we don’t know, and even perhaps *cannot* know, but nevertheless be reasonably certain an answer exists. For example, how many birds are in flight at this moment over the earth? I don’t know. Nobody does. But a pretty good guess is the number is an integer! Mysticism is never, never useful. The sooner we purge it from the collective psyche, the better we’ll be for it. Will this solve all our problems? Hardly. But it’s a damn good start at their ultimate solutions.

  3. I was raised Catholic, but as I grew into young adulthood, I was turned off by the deeply ingrained institutional sexism and the opposition to birth control, so I voted with my feet. The child rape scandal and the CYA response insured that the breach was irreconcilable. Even thought I had my philosophical differences with John Paul II, I had respected him, until his horribly inadequate response to such terrible crimes. All the hypocrisy I’ve seen in so many American churches also disgusts me, and like 50, I want evidence if you’re asking me to believe something. My mindset is that I would rather know than believe, which is going to be incompatible which just about every religion except perhaps Unitarianism.

    This election ripped all the covers off the hypocrisy of the religion right. This editorial speaks 100% for me:

    http://theweek.com/articles/685626/mortal-sin-supporting-president-trump

    When I first read Mike Pence’s disgusting rationalization of Trump’s immoral behavior (the Access Hollywood tapes), I felt white-hot rage. I will not listen to any spiritual lecturing from anyone who voted from Trump.

  4. Now’s the GOP no longer has to deliver anything concrete on that whole Obummercare thing, they have all the time in the world to chip away in rapid order all those little things you take for granted such as:

    Sexual health and safety: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/03/30/vice-president-pence-breaking-tie-senate-moves-against-planned-parenthood/99820022/

    Privacy: http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/29/technology/internet-privacy-outrage/

    A clean and stable environment: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-rolling-back-obama-rules/

    Civil rights: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/lgbtq-advocates-say-trump-s-news-executive-order-makes-them-n740301

    All done in less than a week, and that’s just the stuff I’ve learned about while being super busy with new deadlines working 60 hour weeks so I haven’t even yet gotten to look into

    what Flynn is all about: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/michael-flynn-testify-trump-russia-probe-170331020536377.html

    Back on the saddle then.

    1. Aaron – You might be interested to know that our VP Pence has stated on the record that he will not be alone in a room with a woman other than his wife, and, second, that he will not have an alcoholic beverage without his wife being present…..Pretty amazing, right? Yet, this paragon of balance in virtue gets to cast the tie-breaking vote on legislation that impacts PP.

      1. That and appearances. People who are “in control” of themselves don’t usually need to pontificate about it. The “holier than thou” aspect of his statement says more about him than he may realize. People like Pence tend to be judgmental of others in a subliminal way to elevate their own sense of superiority.

    2. Look at this way. Ain’t no way in hell Flynn gets immunity unless he has one helluva story to tell and one that he can back up. If he does get it (and that’s a BIG if), bar the doors ’cause it’s gonna be like a stick of Grade A dynamite thrown right into the halls of Congress.

      1. Profile photo of EJ EJ

        Such a thing would require a Congress which is openly hostile to the President. It would require a President who’s openly alienated everyone in Congress, from the speaker to the hardline bloc in their own party, to the opposition, to even the moderates.

        It’s funny how these things work out.

      2. Well, it sure won’t happen in the House Intelligence Committee, will it? Nunes needs to be removed. This entire sordid mess is one of choosing to “look the other way”. What does that say about the principled conservative leadership? Ryan is complicit by his association with Nunes and his decision to not pull him from chair of the Intelligence Committee. Comey may have a chance to redeem himself.

  5. “These churches will make much better site-seeing stops… ”
    I suppose we do some sight-seeing at particular sites, but I’m not sure I’d cite this as proper usage.
    Sorry for the nit-pick, otherwise an interesting post.
    I’m not sure where Australia fits in; probably, as in so many things, somewhere between Europe/UK & the US. Certainly the proportion of “no religion” is increasing here (raises hand as one who has moved from Anglican (Episcopalian in US terms) to atheist), but we do have some mega churches, with a little influence on the political right. I think we have learned something over the last 100 years; in WWI the Catholics/Irish were very anti the war & conscription; a “mixed marriage” was a Catholic & a protestant and a bit of a stigma for both families. Since then we’ve managed to welcome more Catholics, mostly Italians, post-WWII, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims and now lots of Indian Hindus. There’s been some tension, but overall I think we’ve done OK. Most people seem to have a “yeah, whatever” attitude to other’s religion, as long as it’s not trying to impose anything on everyone.

  6. The thundering roar of politicized Bible-thumping may be drowning out the patter of footsteps leaving the pews.

    I think it may be more an issue of *causing* the patter. A lesson of modern politics is that temporal power for churches causes spiritual decline. State religions unchurch people, and to some extent even drive them altogether from belief. My favorite example of this is Iran, where religious belief and observance increased under the secular rule of the Shah and has plummeted under the mullahs.

    It’s a common belief that the US has anomalously high rates of belief and church attendance at least partly because we don’t have an official religion, unlike almost every other modern society. Officially it’s still that way, but the various conservative Christian sects now work so closely politically that to most people it seems we do have a state religion in many parts of the country, and that it has a lot of power even on a national level, with one party in its thrall. And now that that’s happened, we’re seeing what happened in most other developed countries – the populace turning away from the church and religion.

    If the churches turned away from politics I think this would reverse but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that.

  7. I mean to change the subject this time because I’m just stuck in the past (meaning the prior life of this blog).

    Read this story and then imagine these facts coming out regarding Benghazi or ‘Fast and Furious’ or the other ‘scandals’ around our prior President and Secretary of State. Think about it, regarding just one tiny issue in this particular swamp of a story. Suppose Mr. Obama wouldn’t let the CIA run it’s own shop and personally intervened in a job transition regarding one of his employees-what level of head explosion would we have heard from our former participants? We hired a real estate developer to be our Chief Executive, is that why everyone shrugs?

    http://www.vox.com/world/2017/3/30/15126072/devin-nunes-source-white-house

    1. You’ve made reference to “former participants” of this blog and wondered about their silence on more than one occasion. I’m guessing it’s because the new incarnation of this blog is rather hidden from view and therefore doesn’t attract the attention of the usual conservative suspects.

      Or Chris has moved so often, from the Houston Chronicle, to GOP Lifer, and now to Political Orphans, that the usual conservatives stopped following him somewhere along the way.

      1. I found the last election Presidential election very disheartening. There are times in my life when I’ve realized someone I agree with regarding abstract principles is still a lying, untrustworthy __hole, which should of occurred millions upon millions of times when Republicans voted last November. So I went quiet, waited and watched.

  8. Entrepreneurial churches….what an absolute turn off for this lady. Yet, I admit that I had great admiration for Reverend Billy Graham who helped pioneer religion writ large. Somehow, I don’t recall overt commercialization of his services – there seemed to be simplicity in message and presentation, even if he did draw large crowds. Or, maybe it’s that I haven’t (and won’t) attend grand venue religion therefore my recollection of Graham’s ministry “feels” different to me because I choose not to experience entrepreneurial religious services.

    If I were to select a place to meet and share thoughts on spirituality (as opposed to religious dogma), it would likely be in a small, Unitarian Church setting. A place where personal interaction allows one to safely and fairly privately share the concerns and issues that impact daily life.

    I’d like to offer an observation about what I have experienced from my FB engagement surrounding contemporary resistance efforts. I’m fairly cynical therefore I didn’t really expect the level of personal engagement that has unfolded through social media. This is encouraging and seems (to me) to suggest there is still a need for personal interaction on privately held beliefs that is simple, direct, and honest. It has been satisfying to meet the people who expressed thoughts that interest and challenge me – just as I feel here on Political Orphans. The civility of expression, intellectual comprehension, and common goals have been inspiring.

    It may be that “religion” of yesteryear was never as “pure” as old times depicted, but what drew people together was something more than the a deity but the need for common, personal bond with others. For this generation which is driven by technology in every aspect of their lives, social media offers a similar construct for group interaction.

    The most important question really consists of what each person needs in their lives and believes in. Whatever force for good underpins our decisions, in whatever religion,should be fine with the rest of us as long as it doesn’t hurt or dictate the choices of others. Religion in the round won’t do it for me but I can accept that it works for others. I am fine with that.

    1. Ahh, the good old days. Healthcare was not a care. Go see Billy Graham. Just stand in line with your crutches, wheel up to the stage in your wheelchair, stagger, feel your way, whatever and be heeeled. Why can’t we do this now and then we can repeal obamacare and we won’t need trumpcare either.

      Funny that you can’t easily find videos of the Sunday shows I watched as a child. With huge lines of the lame and sickly waiting for the healing touch of this seemingly God like man. And the previously lame dancing across the stage, or the previously blind seeing again. I did a quick search but didn’t find these videos. Miracles must not be recordable.

    2. I think our gradual move away from traditional social capital is a good thing overall. Even though we have weaker social capital and therefore less support, at least we don’t have to worry so much about the burdensome social pressures that once existed with respect to lifestyle, such as homosexuality, divorce, single-parent households, working women, and choice of religion, or no religion at all. Pressure applied via social media does not compare. We are much freer now.

    3. “Religion in the round won’t do it for me but I can accept that it works for others. I am fine with that.” – mime

      “Works” how, exactly? Belief in anything on bad or no evidence is never, ever a good thing. While it does not always lead to a bad result, this fact demonstrates at best a partial neutral. The problem is that any crackpot idea can be sold to a person willing to buy into it without evidence. The credulous put themselves at the mercy of hucksters like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Jim Jones, and Bernie Madoff. What percentage of evangelical Christians voted for Trump? Without them, he would have lost. This *is not* a neutral result. Beliefs have consequences.

      Now, do I believe a person can believe any damn stupid thing they choose? Of course. Do I feel obligated to “respect” those beliefs? Hell no. People deserve respect. Stupid beliefs do not – sorta by definition.

      1. No I am not, Tutt. I believe in nothing without evidence. And you shouldn’t either. The more extraordinary the claim, the more convincing the evidence for it must be. Sky-God’s who created the universe, and who care about me personally, and especially what I do while naked, fall in the category of extraordinary.

      2. Fifty, I stated clearly that it doesn’t work for me, but I can “accept” that it works for others. I also accept the fact that I cannot change this in others but I do have to share this world with them. I believe Billy Graham was a very good man who could have been a stronger advocate for fairness and tolerance in public and didn’t. That doesn’t negate the good he did and I surely don’t lump him in with the crowd of hucksters you mentioned. As for the evangelicals who voted for Trump? Their simplistic hypocrisy is appalling. It’s difficult to separate stupid beliefs from judgement of the individual holding them…at least it is for me.

      3. Mime – I understand fully “it doesn’t work for you”. I stated it “works for no one”. If you figure you cannot change people’s minds on a concept so basic as refusal to accept nonsense without a shred of evidence, what’s with the activism? What’s with all the other stuff you’re doing? What’s the difference? I thought we were in the business of changing people’s minds. If we cannot do that, why bother? Remember, beliefs matter – for all of us, my friend.

      4. One area I stay clear of Fifty is religion. Areas of activism where one can apply facts are productive uses of my time and efforts. I choose not to engage with people in a discussion of religion as a personal matter. I frankly find more peace in a beautiful sunset, or a still moment than I do in church but that’s my choice. I might disagree with others’ beliefs but, like you, I respect their right to believe what they want. That’s where I draw the line. We can’t fight every battle out there, or, at least, I can’t.

      5. At this point in my life, I have to be selective to be effective…time, energy, focus. My mother had a deep personal faith her entire life. It sustained her through some hard times. Who am I to question something that brings peace to others and doesn’t harm me? Now, when the religious right begins its bullshit on issue that are important to me, then I react. Otherwise, I live and let live understanding that for many people, their religion/faith is a source of strength. I have always tended to place that responsibility upon my own shoulders, for better or worse.

      6. Profile photo of EJ EJ

        I’ve been active in organised atheism for about five years now, and I can confirm that it’s definitely had a large, vocal subset of racists and misogynists. What’s worse, recently I’ve seen enough alt-Right types come out of the woodwork to make the movement a deeply uncomfortable place. Movement atheism is still stuck in an insurgent mindset in which it welcomes everyone who wants to join, no matter how noxious their other views are; and in which people are slow to believe that one has to stand for something rather than just against things. This may have been a good way to run it when it was genuinely underground, but now it stands in the way of actually making progress in a meaningful fashion.

        For example, in 2012, Jen McCreight and several others tried to change this by pushing movement atheism into an explicitly progressive political direction; in response a vocal minority of people harassed her personally, trying to get her kicked off her PhD course and (allegedly) trying to take advantage of her depression to drive her to suicide. A much larger group of people, including most of the elders of the movement, carefully stood aside and did nothing to stop it. A lot of people – myself included – saw this as unacceptable and concluded that if organised atheism were to survive then it had to be able to exclude the sort of people who run harassment campaigns like this.

        We’ve largely failed. Nowadays the movement is full of alt-Right types and their apologists. I’ve drifted towards Humanism as a more positive form of organised nonreligion.

        For this reason, Fifty, when you say that there is no God then I agree with you; but when you imply that a simple lack of belief in God is all that’s needed to make a better society, I disagree with you. Atheism isn’t enough. Rationality has been shown not to work. We need something explicitly positive, and we need it to be organised enough to be able to exclude the alt-Right.

      7. Here, here. Hope is mobilizing. Hope sustains people in difficult times. I don’t personally care what it is called, what I do care about is that people have something positive in their lives that they choose that brings them comfort – just as long as it doesn’t
        impenge the rights of others. We old timers call this: tolerance. I admit that I find it easier to believe in than to practice, especially in the face of consequential, willful, ignorance of cause and effect.

      8. Irronicaly EJ, Richard Carrier, the most vocal supporter of Ahteism+ turned out to be the worst sexual harasser. People who were skeptical of the push into “explicitly progressive direction” turned out to be right.

      9. Profile photo of EJ EJ

        I shall not defend Richard Carrier. I shall, however, note that the people who broke the story about him were prominent A+ allies, namely PZ Myers and Stephanie Zvan (who were also the ones that broke the story about Michael Shermer.) As such, to me this was a story more about A+ being willing to clean its own house.

        A+ has its problems, and sadly there is no group of humans which can be certified to be free of sexual harassers, but I’d argue that this is what good looks like. A group discovered that one of its members had behaved unacceptably, then instead of hushing it up for PR purposes they made it public and excluded him. If only all groups would behave like this; the Catholic Church, for example.

      10. Adherents to religion do not have a hermetically sealed container called ‘beliefs’ which has no effect on their judgement and view of the world. Do you really want someone who ‘believes’ a war in the Middle East can lead to Jesus returning to Earth in a cloud to be involved in diplomacy in the Middle East? When do you decide that it’s ok for your doctor to not ‘believe’ evolution, but he’ll give you a treatment suppressing your immune system, which wouldn’t even be an idea without evolution science. We survived government in the our state of Texas DESPITE these beliefs, not because of them………………

      11. I have heard economists state that: “the federal budget is a moral document”. This becomes more real as I watch programs gutted that impact our health, environment, and democratic institutions. Willful ignorance is all around us and all we can do at this point is fight it every step of the way.

      12. EJ – I don’t understand “movement atheism”, or “organized atheism”. They sound too much like religions to me. I think it was Jon Stewart who said, “Atheism is as much a religion as abstinence is a sex position.” When you have movements within that attempt to give political direction to what is entirely apolitical, (and in fact “a” anything but simple reason), things will go off the rails.

        You further state, “Rationality has been shown not to work.” Without asking by whom, or when, I’m going to for now assume that statement was not a simple indictment of the most, and perhaps only, tool in the human arsenal we have against the dark. Perhaps I’ve taken this out of context.

      13. Crogged makes an excellent point above on the fallacy of the bicameral mind – the notion that nonsense like religion can be locked away in a room between the ears, and only trotted out on Sunday. No friends – that stuff oozes out from under the door and gets all over everything.

        The other point about the doctor, (not unlike our current HUD secretary), is spot-on too.

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