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.