Church vs. Taskforce

I am generally suspicious of envying crazy groups or trying to blindly copycat the rhythm of religion—what I called “hymns to the nonexistence of God”, replying, “A good ‘atheistic hymn’ is simply a song about anything worth singing about that doesn’t happen to be religious.”

But religion does fill certain holes in people’s minds, some of which are even worth filling. If you eliminate religion, you have to be aware of what gaps are left behind.

If you suddenly deleted religion from the world, the largest gap left would not be anything of ideals or morals; it would be the church, the community. Among those who now stay religious without quite really believing in God—how many are just sticking to it from wanting to stay with their neighbors at the church, and their family and friends? How many would convert to atheism, if all those others deconverted, and that were the price of staying in the community and keeping its respect? I would guess… probably quite a lot.

In truth… this is probably something I don’t understand all that well, myself. “Brownies and babysitting” were the first two things that came to mind. Do churches lend helping hands in emergencies? Or just a shoulder to cry on? How strong is a church community? It probably depends on the church, and in any case, that’s not the correct question. One should start by considering what a hunter-gatherer band gives its people, and ask what’s missing in modern life—if a modern First World church fills only some of that, then by all means let us try to do better.

So without copycatting religion—without assuming that we must gather every Sunday morning in a building with stained-glass windows while the children dress up in formal clothes and listen to someone sing—let’s consider how to fill the emotional gap, after religion stops being an option.

To help break the mold to start with—the straitjacket of cached thoughts on how to do this sort of thing—consider that some modern offices may also fill the same role as a church. By which I mean that some people are fortunate to receive community from their workplaces: friendly coworkers who bake brownies for the office, whose teenagers can be safely hired for babysitting, and maybe even help in times of catastrophe...? But certainly not everyone is lucky enough to find a community at the office.

Consider further—a church is ostensibly about worship, and a workplace is ostensibly about the commercial purpose of the organization. Neither has been carefully optimized to serve as a community.

Looking at a typical religious church, for example, you could suspect—although all of these things would be better tested experimentally, than just suspected—

  • That getting up early on a Sunday morning is not optimal;

  • That wearing formal clothes is not optimal, especially for children;

  • That listening to the same person give sermons on the same theme every week (“religion”) is not optimal;

  • That the cost of supporting a church and a pastor is expensive, compared to the number of different communities who could time-share the same building for their gatherings;

  • That they probably don’t serve nearly enough of a matchmaking purpose, because churches think they’re supposed to enforce their medieval moralities;

  • That the whole thing ought to be subject to experimental data-gathering to find out what works and what doesn’t.

By using the word “optimal” above, I mean “optimal under the criteria you would use if you were explicitly building a community qua community”. Spending lots of money on a fancy church with stained-glass windows and a full-time pastor makes sense if you actually want to spend money on religion qua religion.

I do confess that when walking past the churches of my city, my main thought is “These buildings look really, really expensive, and there are too many of them.” If you were doing it over from scratch… then you might have a big building that could be used for the occasional wedding, but it would be time-shared for different communities meeting at different times on the weekend, and it would also have a nice large video display that could be used for speakers giving presentations, lecturers teaching something, or maybe even showing movies. Stained glass? Not so high a priority.

Or to the extent that the church membership lends a helping hand in times of trouble—could that be improved by an explicit rainy-day fund or contracting with an insurer, once you realized that this was an important function? Possibly not; dragging explicit finance into things changes their character oddly. Conversely, maybe keeping current on some insurance policies should be a requirement for membership, lest you rely too much on the community… But again, to the extent that churches provide community, they’re trying to do it without actually admitting that this nearly all of what people get out of it. Same thing with the corporations whose workplaces are friendly enough to serve as communities; it’s still something of an accidental function.

Once you start thinking explicitly about how to give people a hunter-gatherer band to belong to, you can see all sorts of things that sound like good ideas. Should you welcome the newcomer in your midst? The pastor may give a sermon on that sometime, if you think church is about religion. But if you’re explicitly setting out to build community—then right after a move is when someone most lacks community, when they most need your help. It’s also an opportunity for the band to grow. If anything, tribes ought to be competing at quarterly exhibitions to capture newcomers.

But can you really have a community that’s just a community—that isn’t also an office or a religion? A community with no purpose beyond itself?

Maybe you can. After all, hunter-gatherer tribes have any purposes beyond themselves?—well, there was survival and feeding yourselves, that was a purpose.

But anything that people have in common, especially any goal they have in common, tends to want to define a community. Why not take advantage of that?

Though in this age of the Internet, alas, too many binding factors have supporters too widely distributed to form a decent band—if you’re the only member of the Church of the Subgenius in your city, it may not really help much. It really is different without the physical presence; the Internet does not seem to be an acceptable substitute at the current stage of the technology.

So to skip right to the point—

Should the Earth last so long, I would like to see, as the form of rationalist communities, taskforces focused on all the work that needs doing to fix up this world. Communities in any geographic area would form around the most specific cluster that could support a decent-sized band. If your city doesn’t have enough people in it for you to find 50 fellow Linux programmers, you might have to settle for 15 fellow open-source programmers… or in the days when all of this is only getting started, 15 fellow rationalists trying to spruce up the Earth in their assorted ways.

That’s what I think would be a fitting direction for the energies of communities, and a common purpose that would bind them together. Tasks like that need communities anyway, and this Earth has plenty of work that needs doing, so there’s no point in waste. We have so much that needs doing—let the energy that was once wasted into the void of religious institutions, find an outlet there. And let purposes admirable without need for delusion, fill any void in the community structure left by deleting religion and its illusionary higher purposes.

Strong communities built around worthwhile purposes: That would be the shape I would like to see for the post-religious age, or whatever fraction of humanity has then gotten so far in their lives.

Although… as long as you’ve got a building with a nice large high-resolution screen anyway, I wouldn’t mind challenging the idea that all post-adulthood learning has to take place in distant expensive university campuses with teachers who would rather be doing something else. And it’s empirically the case that colleges seem to support communities quite well. So in all fairness, there are other possibilities for things you could build a post-theistic community around.

Is all of this just a dream? Maybe. Probably. It’s not completely devoid of incremental implementability, if you’ve got enough rationalists in a sufficiently large city who have heard of the idea. But on the off-chance that rationality should catch on so widely, or the Earth should last so long, and that my voice should be heard, then that is the direction I would like to see things moving in—as the churches fade, we don’t need artificial churches, but we do need new idioms of community.