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.