Thursday, September 20, 2012

A thought on organized religion

I want to talk about the increasing American antipathy for organized religion. But I think I'll talk about hurricanes first. 

On the way home from work today, I listened to an interview with Daniel Aldrich, a political scientist who has studied natural disaster response. His main point (which he also argues in a short NYT article) is that in a disaster situation, deep social connections and shared trust matter more than money, education, or numerous other factors.

This is, of course, no surprise to Latter-day Saints--though the details are interesting. Aldrich mentions, for example, that you are far more likely to be successfully dug out of rubble after an earthquake if a neighbor knows where in the house you sleep. (Suggested Sunday school question: "If your home or visiting teachees were buried in a pile of rubble tomorrow, would you know where to dig?") In so many small ways, we are prepared to bless each other in hard times as we come to know and trust each other in easy ones. What we earn through countless minor acts of service and interaction is a gradual strengthening of our shared social capital.

But if neighbors are more likely to save our lives than money is, why aren't more people investing in their local social capital supplies?

Probably because it's a long, potentially boring process where most of the payout is delayed. Sort of like saving for retirement later instead of going out to eat now. Or working on a long-term relationship instead of looking for another new romance.

Most people in any culture would prefer to do what's interesting now rather than what pays off in the future. And Americans are particularly prone to this, because we value freedom and we value being current and we value having stuff we can touch. So having to give up your own freedom to spend regular time with neighbors can feel stifling, neighborhood values can seem old-fashioned or lame, and spending time with people can feel unproductive if there's no acquisition of objects involved. 

This is where organized religion comes in. Organized religions often facilitate organic, local growth of shared social capital by making demands of us: we have to gather together to worship, and we have to do small acts of kindness for each other, and we have to sit and talk--and even listen to the people around us. We are expected to do these things even when we could be doing things that are more interesting or timely or short-term "productive." Religion calls on us, reminds us, to do things we might easily neglect without its voice.

Can a person be spiritual without being religious? Yes. Can love your fellow men without organizing with any of them around shared beliefs? Absolutely.  Can choose your own path in life without dealing with the pressures of an Institution? Sure. 

But I'm thankful for a religion with organized demands. Because, speaking from both personal experience and statistical evidence, it's my religion as much as my spirituality that has led me to invest in others, day by day, in ways that will prepare us to endure difficult times--however they may come.

It's my religion that will call to me the moment after the storm comes.


  1. This is exactly, exactly why I believe organized religion is so important. The natural tendency of humanity is to NOT do all those hard things unless someone pressures us.

    I went on splits with sister missionaries years ago and tracted into a woman who insisted she didn't need organized religion. Then went on to praise the R.S. sisters who helped her sister with her husband's funeral and provided a hot lunch for the family. I think in that woman's mind she really didn't need to go to church ... because the church was going to help her anyway!

    We ought to do a poll of non-members in Utah to see how many think their Mormon neighbors are going to support them with their food storage if a significant disaster hits. Ah well ... the majority of us probably would help them!

    1. I have always figured that the real reason we're supposed to keep a one-year supply is so that we have a two-week supply for the whole block.

      A little leaven needs to be ready to do a lot of work! And there's a lot of joy in that.

    2. YES! Exactly! I always thought it was a no-brainer when people wrung their hands over what they were supposed to do when tough times came and their neighbors had been grasshoppers. Oh my gosh - don't cross over to the other side of the road and leave them there to die! The Samaritan didn't have an interview with the wounded man!

  2. I know you probably didn't intend to make me giggle but the Sunday School question did me in. It also reminded me of Del's comeback to those who say they don't need organized religion. "Would you prefer disorganized religion?" :) If the fruits of faith is love for our fellow human beings, organized religion gives that love structure and support. Or at least, that's what we strive for.

    It's so true that one of the wonderful things about our faith is that it makes us cross paths with, go into the homes of, serve and learn to love people who we would have no interest in speaking with in a neutral setting.

    1. I'm pretty much always cool with joyful laughter.

      And I agree that the structure is important to building the individual human relationships. Th. links to an article that provides more evidence of that a few comments down from here--it's worth checking out quickly.

  3. I never thought about the disaster response point, but I love the thought. As I read your question about home and visiting teachees I, of course, thought about it and realized that Yes! I do know where they sleep. In fact, I extended that even further and thought about my neighbors and can say that I know where at least 90% of them sleep (at least the ones in my ward neighborhood). I should get to know the other half of my street better.

  4. Replies
    1. Cool link. Here's a relevant excerpt:

      "As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added."



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