Thursday, April 21, 2011

Religion-shaped hole: Community

Last time I talked about my experience with one of the "needs" supposedly fulfilled by religion: spirituality.  Now I will talk about another need: community.

I have a very strong need for community.  I did not realize this until college, or perhaps I simply did not feel the need before.

The Catholicism I grew up in did not provide a community, at least not to me.  I have memories of Sundays at church.  We were always late to mass (sometimes my fault), and I did not talk to a single person there.  I suppose there were just too many people, in the hundreds.  The only social interaction occurred at a particular point in mass where everyone exchanged handshakes.  "Peace be with you."  "And also with you."  And then there's the time when everyone holds hands while saying the Our Father.  But that's it.  It was more a ritual than real socializing.

And then there was CCD, which was like Sunday school, but on Wednesdays.  My memories of this are very dim, since it was ages 5-10 (?), but I remember being introduced to the sacraments and doing lots of arts and crafts.  I do not remember meeting any other kids this way.  But then I didn't have any friends period at the time, so perhaps this was my fault and not CCD's fault.

Skipping ahead to college, one of the first things I encountered there were campus ministry organizations.  Before classes even started, someone knocked on our dorm room door and offered us Red Vine (I am a sucker for licorice).  Then she suggested going to someone's room where they would play games.  So I did, along with my roommate.  There were one or two dozen people there, and as we played Mafia I slowly figured out that the organizers were part of the Inter-Varsity Bruin Christian Fellowship.  Some atheists might find it somewhat sinister that this group would "trick" us into coming, but I think it was genuine.  We really did have fun playing games, and they were not pressuring anyone to become further involved.

By then, I no longer identified as Catholic, and my roommate was an apathetic Buddhist, but we were both impressed by the social opportunities it offered.  I have to hand it to them, they knew how to organize a community. They had a variety of subspaces and types of activities.  I didn't like the services because I don't like enthusiastic crowds or singing (not even getting into my disagreement with the sermons), but that was okay because there were plenty other things.  I went to a few barbecues, a few house parties, and a few small group meetings, lots of dining hall dinners, and at one point a play.  Some spaces made me uncomfortable as a non-Christian, so I just learned to avoid those things.  Overall, I enjoyed the activities, and I liked the network of friends I made.

And yet it was definitely suboptimal for an atheist to be using a Christian space, so the next year I more or less stopped meeting new people in the group, and moved on to other things.  One of those things was a student group called the Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists.  Long-time readers know I was president of this group last year.  This was great, for me anyways.  I liked the absurd intellectual discussions, and I liked the collection of eccentric nerds I met.  In all my experience with communities, I have never found one with as high a density of eccentricity as skeptical and atheist groups.  And I like that.  The down-side is that they're terribly organized (I especially felt this way when I was doing the organizing).

And then I became involved in the queer community.  The queer community, I think is more... normal.  They drink and party a lot, and they like pop culture.  They have terrible taste in music, or maybe that's just me.  Nonetheless, I am addicted to queer spaces.

What lessons can we derive from my personal story?  It's hard to generalize, and I'm sure many details are just red herrings.

One lesson is that religion does not always provide for the needs that people say it does.  I have never really felt much of a sense of Catholic community or Catholic culture.  Catholicism is just boring.  I have, on the other hand, found a wonderful community among atheists.  But is this community for everyone, or is it only for eccentrics nerds?  I have a hard time fighting this eccentric culture myself, because it's one of the things I personally enjoy.

The last lesson could be that we don't need to go to the atheist community to have community.  The queer community is plenty secular, for instance.  I'm betting most atheists who need a community simply find other communities that are not explicitly atheistic.  Is there anything wrong with this, besides the fact that it makes atheists less visible?  I honestly can't say there is.

Do any of you have stories about what community means to you?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is peripheral to your post, but with your background I wondered: Have you ever seen and listened to Leonard Bernstein's "Mass"? Can you comment on these lyrics:

"I believe in God,
But does God believe in me?
I’ll believe in any god
If any god there be.

I believe in one God,
But then I believe in three.
I’ll believe in twenty gods
If they`ll believe in me.

What I need I don’t have
What I have I don’t own
What I own I don’t want
What I want, Lord, I don’t know.

What I say I don’t feel
What I feel I don’t show
What I show isn’t real
What is real, Lord-I don’t know,
No, no, no-I don’t know."