Thursday, August 22, 2013

Religion for Atheists / De Botton

 De Botton after making a number of comments about the existential loneliness, aggravated by modern living in cities, and the difficulties of truly meeting new people and even making new friends after the age of thirty, highlights the community which is shared in the "Catholic Mass".  (He does not want to say the Lord's Supper, I would think.  It happens to be the case that the Supper is shared not only in the Catholic Mass, etc.)
Religions seem to know a great deal about our loneliness.  Even if we believe very little of what they tell us about the afterlife or the supernatural origins of their doctrines, we can nevertheless admire their understanding of what separates us from strangers and their attempts to melt away one or two of the prejudices that normally prevent us from building connections with others.
     A Catholic Mass is not, to be sure, the ideal habitat for an atheist.  Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible.  It goes on for a long time and rarely overrides a temptation to fall asleep.  Nevertheless, the ceremony is replete with elements which subtly strengthen congregants' bonds of affection, and which atheists would do well to study and on occasion learn to appropriate for reuse in the secular realm.
     Catholicism starts to create a sense of community with a setting.  It marks off a piece of the earth, puts walls up around it and declares that within their parameters there will reign values utterly unlike those which hold sway in the world beyond, in the offices, gyms and living rooms of the city.  All buildings give their owners opportunities to recondition visitors' expectations and to lay down rules of conduct specific to them.  The art gallery legitimates the practice of peering silently at a canvas, the nightclub of swaying one's hands to a musical score.  And a church, with its massive timber doors and 300 stone angels carved around its porch, gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane.  We are promised that here (in the words of the Mass's initial greeting) 'the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit' belong to all who have assembled.  The Church lends its enormous prestige, accrued through age, learning and architectural grandeur, to our shy desire to open ourselves to someone new.
     The composition of the congregation feels significant.  Those in attendance tend not be be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or education or income level;  they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values.  The Mass actively breaks down the economic and status subgroups within which we normally operate, casting us into a wider sea of humanity.

I have my entire life been involved in church and known many different kinds of people and always made a point to keep meeting new people, that I cannot even imagine what it is like not to have such immediate access to people of all stripes and colors.  Not too long ago, I met a new co-worker, a man from Egypt, a Christian who had fled here.  In Egypt he was a dentist.  Here he worked as a hygienist.  I could tell something about him right away and it did not take long for us to figure out that we shared Christ.  He took me in his arms and called me a sister.  This is so nice.   And I can't see this happen in any other kind of context unless you really were a long lost relative.  There is an immediate access which can be read in the face--a surrender of walls and prejudices--the gift of love and honesty--because we are both before God.  I don't know how an atheist could ever duplicate this.

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