31 May 2018


The other day I happened to be driving past a church and it occurred to me that I don't really have much idea what people actually do when they go to those places.  I'd always vaguely assumed they engaged in some sort of rituals, and I know that in Catholicism they do that thing where everybody comes up to the front and eats a wafer after the priest has recited some words over it which supposedly "transubstantiate" it into the flesh of Jesus, but aside from that, my concept of it all was rather hazy.  My academic study of comparative religion covered the supernatural beliefs, history, and cultural impact of the various religions fairly well, but details of rituals weren't emphasized.

So yesterday I asked someone who used to attend church (mainline Protestant) when she was younger.  She said there's a sermon by the presiding clergyman, praying, hymn-singing, and passing the collection plate -- and that's about it, though presumably there's some variation between sects and even between churches in the same sect.  I've already mentioned (item 7) why, to me, the concept of praying doesn't make sense.  I've seen videos of a few sermons; the fundamentalist ones seem heavy on ranting, denouncing "sin", and praising God, often with Bible passages illustrative of whatever the preacher is talking about, while the non-fundamentalist ones are more sedate and less intimidating versions of the same thing.  Does an all-powerful being really need praise and declarations of loyalty from the inhabitants of this one tiny speck of the vast universe he supposedly created?  Of course at the time these rituals originated, people believed that the Earth was the main part of the universe, but few modern people are so ignorant.

It's well known that church attendance, for many people, is a social activity -- it's where they meet people who become friends, and keep in touch with acquaintances they would otherwise rarely see.  I guess the shared participation in rituals mostly serves to reinforce group identity -- the rituals as such make little sense, but performing them together creates a sense of belonging.  The sermons presumably remind people of beliefs which most participants supposedly hold but don't actually think about much in daily life.  If so, the decline of church attendance throughout the world, even among people who still self-identify as Christian, is significant -- if they no longer want such reinforcement, they can't be attaching much importance to religion any more.

I'm sure that by now most readers are thinking that it's absurd for me to be mystified by something which is so perfectly ordinary to most Americans.  Even most atheists remember going to church before they abandoned religion, and on some level it still seems like a normal thing to them, even if they no longer do it.  Yet I'd ask you to look at it from my perspective too, and realize how incredibly weird, alien, and pointless all the ritual activities described above appear to someone who grew up without religion and never observed them.

I know I'm unusual in this respect.  I've interacted with quite a few atheists over the years, both in the blogosphere and in meatspace, but as best I can remember, none of them grew up completely without religious belief as I did -- every one of them started off in a religion, at least in childhood, and then broke free from it.  This illustrates why atheists are the fastest-growing demographic in the country -- most of the growth comes from people leaving other (religious) groups, not from people being born into atheism.  But since there are so many adult atheists now, there are a lot more children being born into non-religious environments, as I was.  Which means that in the coming decades the country will have a lot more adults like me -- people to whom Christianity and its practices seem as baffling and strange as the rituals of Hinduism or Buddhism do to the typical American Christian.  David Voas touched upon that point in this video:

To many Americans in the future, Christianity will look the way Islam looks to most Americans today -- a group with unfamiliar and bewildering beliefs and practices, largely represented in the popular mind by its extremist minority which holds intolerant, threatening, and frightening views.  It's hard to imagine them finding this appealing.  Even today, the number of atheists who join a religion is tiny compared with the veritable stampede in the opposite direction.  Whatever ground religion loses is, by the time the second generation arrives, lost to it forever.


Blogger Adam said...

Catholics and Anglicans are certainly more on the ritual side.

31 May, 2018 05:35  
Blogger Donna said...

My father used to enjoy singing in the choir (I grew up Catholic and am now resoundingly, happily agnostic). My mother taught an ASL class there. I think for both of them it was a social thing. Maybe also meditative.

A friend is a Unitarian Universalist and says that'd be a good place for me. Dunno, if I feel the pull to find a social group, I'd be far more inclined to join in with a group where the focus is art or writing versus god or "spirituality."

an aside, my magnificently dear, departed husband used to, in rare moments of fury, rage over the insanity of the single god concept. He was also agnostic and felt that, if god existed, there'd OBVS be loads of 'em. Gods not god.

Me? I like the multi-god idea mostly because it's inspired a lot of cool art.

31 May, 2018 06:45  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Good food for thought as far as what you say about your upbringing, I meet probably more younger generations today than ever, that did not grow up around religion, but still meet many younger ones, especially latino for example, that grew up with it, whether they embrace it or not ... religions to me seem like cultures more than anything else I guess. And good points as well from Professor Vaos ... he has a point. Religion is one of those subjects that is difficult for me to talk about with people, because they who are, are so fixed on what it is. When I use a word like spirituality for instance, many people start thinking about "spirits", and it would be difficult for me to define it to a "religious person", that has embraced what they call spirituality, and they would totally disagree with me, I know. I loosely use the word/ terms for "communication", lets say ... because of the people I talk to. For me, spirituality is simply getting into ones- self and mind in deep thought, or say, meditation, inner communication ... such as even relaxation exercises, yoga, talking to ones self, examining ones subconscious, planning, self help, motivation, etc, etc ... I dont look at spirituality as communication with external deities, or anything other than ones inner- self. I wont talk about this with most people, because they would disagree, if they grew up being taught it by conventional related belief systems ... and we would spend hours talking, which is a waste of time to me. Basically I created my own definition of these things. Such as the idea of good/ evil ... I only use the word "evil" in communication to those who I communicate with, or write, to make a point ... I feel human "nature" is both good/ evil (negative/ positive), and it is pointless to fight your own nature, such as a church teaches. The art of religions, whether pagan, catholic, satanic/ occult, or anything (cant say much about islam, because it lacks art, in my view, and the ritual is kind of weak). But I also enjoy ritualistic sex for example, as far as incorporating the art into the sex, or sexual role play, etc, in the same sense, lots of unusual music, scents, etc ... satanic/ occult sex ritual is very stimulating as example. If a religious person asks me to define god or satan, as example ... my response would be ... "you are your own god and satan, they are both a creation within yourself, and what you make of them, or dont make of them, is your choice and will ... it couldnt exist without your mind". Yes, I love ritualistic art, and various literature ... but at the same time, I believe that the human is a animal of habit (the human mind, being so neurotic, can be unique), as well as ritual, in everything we do, even an atheist, and a non- spiritual ritual, of eating, joining a social group, acts in our daily lives. I dont have a "title" as a christian or atheist would, I guess, I live philosophically closer to satanic thought, I cant really claim to be right or left either, because I am both ... but I do claim to be an American Texan. But, enough from me Infidel, because I hardly even discuss this with anyone, but I know you, so I did.

31 May, 2018 07:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Adam: I guess they like the pageantry.

Donna: If we can't have zero gods, I'm all in favor of having lots of them. Competition is healthy -- keeps 'em honest.

Ranch: "Spirituality" is such a foggy term, I think a lot of people use it when they don't have a religion but want to affirm that they "believe in" something, because for some reason it's still uncool to have no baseless beliefs at all.

All gods are created from human minds. Most people have forgotten that and think their imagined entities are real. In other situations, we refer to that as delusion.

31 May, 2018 07:43  
Blogger Ami said...

Interesting to ponder. I don't know many people who were not exposed to religion and all its pageantry and rituals and singing and dancing and waving of hands.

I'm one of the grew-up-in-the-cult variety, didn't escape completely until I was about 26, although I headed in that direction for about 8 years.

My children were raised non-religious. When my son wrote a dating profile years ago, he put in writing that he would not date anyone who was not an atheist. I know several of the younger set who do likewise.

I wonder if I'll live long enough to see regular people be comfortable saying they're atheists. I don't talk about it, or not much. When asked, I say that personal beliefs are exactly that. Personal. And that I keep mine to myself.

Too bad more people don't keep their beliefs to themselves.

31 May, 2018 09:29  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I grew up going to a Mormon, Baptist and sometimes Christian church. Once I got old enough to say I didn't want to go anymore, I didn't have to but they were all almost identical in what went on inside when you went there. I consider myself Agnostic now and we raised our daughter non religious. If she wanted to go with a friend or family member she could and she did a few times but doesn't now.

31 May, 2018 13:03  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I was raised in Catholicism, because that's what families did in those days. My parents were Italian immigrants and the Catholic holidays were very important in our culture. My mother was a believer, but my father was not. He went along with the church-going and Sunday schooling to keep the peace in our home.

I did not raise my two children in any religion, and they have not raised my 4 grandchildren in any religion. So what Infidel753 predicted in his fine post has happened in my family. My children don't know any of the rituals I was taught, and they are raising respectful, decent families without guilt or threats of eternal damnation.

31 May, 2018 15:22  
Blogger Les Carpenter said...

Personally I've always favored, if that's the appropriate word, the Greek gods. They are more, at least for me, more realistic and humanlike. As all gods, or God, were created in the minds of men the Ancient Greek gods are by far more interesting.

Why it is mystical beliefs are so important to so many is a wonderment for me. But on the other hand it they help a person deal with problems, like they do for recovering alcoholics or drug addicts they serve a useful purpose I guess.

01 June, 2018 04:25  
Blogger Darrell Michaels said...

Interesting post, Infidel. I sadly must concur that we are absolutely trending towards being a post-Christian nation with great alacrity. While there are millions of good and decent people in this world that are atheist, I have to wonder what this continuing trend holds for society as a whole when there is no greater authority than one's self.

01 June, 2018 08:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ami: I can well understand at least not wanting to date someone who's too religious. It could lead to all kinds of problems.

If younger people are putting atheism in their dating profiles, it seems that they at least are comfortable with it. I think we're approaching a tipping point where there are enough atheists that people no longer feel the need to hide it, at least in the most developed parts of the country.

Mary: Interesting that they were so similar. I would have thought the Mormons at least would be different. I suppose they're trying to be more mainstream these days.

Shaw: It sounds like your children, like Mary's daughter, represent the wave of the future. Once religion is cast off, it's usually gone for good.

Rational: They certainly were more human and relatable. The Abrahamic God has so many absolute qualities as to seem like an unimaginable abstraction. Certainly the Greek gods don't seem to have inhibited the development of science in ancient Greece the way Christianity and Islam (post-1100) did in their zones of domination.

T: We don't actually have to wonder -- we have data. The least religious countries in the world (Scandinavia, Britain, Japan) are the most crime-free and peaceful -- what crime does exist in those places is disproportionately caused by immigrants from more religious cultures -- and the most religious regions such as Latin America, black Africa, and the Middle East are the most violent. Similarly, within the US, the most secular states are the most peaceful while the most religious states have the highest rates of crime, teen pregnancy, divorce, etc. Over time, violence has generally declined along with the decline of religion. We can trace that trend all the way back to the time when Christianity was totally dominant in the West -- the time of the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, witch-burnings, torture, and rates of conventional violent crime far higher than anything seen today. As the world continues to become more secular, there's every reason to expect it to continue becoming more peaceful and humane as well.

On the general issue of religion and morality, you might find this video of interest.

01 June, 2018 09:37  
Blogger Dave Dubya said...

I agree the “shared participation in rituals mostly serves to reinforce group identity”. Humans have a tendency to be herd animals, finding a sense of safety and identity in clans, tribes, ethnicity and nationality. Unfortunately politicized religion and mythological traditions divide more than unite humanity. Look no further than, “Jesus sent Donald Trunp to save America!”

Now “Republican Jesus” and “Trump Christians” rejoice over tax cuts for the rich and defunding of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. They cheer the condemnation of Black athletes protesting injustice. They wrap their “righteous hate” in the flag and Bible.

Religion offers them safety in numbers and the comfort of a shared belief system. Humans also have a tendency towards authoritarianism, seeking or submitting to authoritarian leaders or dogma. Both are abundant in varying degrees in religious communities.

Face it. Most people are not informed enough, or emotionally and intellectually equipped, to think for themselves. Uninformed people with undeveloped emotional and intellectual capacities live in fear and ignorance. They naturally fear death and uncertainty, as well as other cultures, in a confusing and complicated world. The more authoritarian nature they have, the more active is their amygdala, the primitive brain center of the “fight or flight” response.

Religion alleviates their sense of fear and confusion with a culturally acceptable belief system.

Religion and political movements give them purpose. It frees them from having to think too much. As we know, mixing the two has never resulted in good outcomes for freedom or democracy.

Now we find ourselves in not a “post-Christian” America, but a Post-Truth America, draining us of basic human decency and compassion.

The value of religion can only be measured by how much it reinforces decency and compassion. Due to the tendency of fundamentalist authoritarian leadership, they largely fail in this.

So, yes, to the embarrassment of the devout, torture and the death penalty both have higher approval among the religious than with atheists. “Love thy neighbor”, not so much.

While many fundamentalists decry “secular humanism”, at least it openly embraces human decency and compassion. It is credit to our species that many of us can choose the path of decency and compassion, without having to fear devils, hell, and other mythological concepts.

Devils and Hell are human creations when decency and compassion are abandoned.

02 June, 2018 10:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Dave: I agree with most of what you say. However, while it's true that many people "are not informed enough, or emotionally and intellectually equipped, to think for themselves", I can't agree that it's "most". Fifty or a hundred years ago, maybe, but not now. You have only to look at the collapse of religion in most of the developed world, and the growing contempt for authority and sacred cows of all kinds.

03 June, 2018 05:09  
Blogger Dave Dubya said...

You make a valid point about most people, in the longer view of history.

From my curmudgeonly perspective, I would amend the statement to include myself. Most of us have lived in fear and ignorance somewhere along the way. I think most of us still do to great extent. The Right’s war on journalism and our free press is perilously eroding our First Amendment and fostering more hate, fear, and ignorance.

In many areas humanity is bending away from ignorance, fear, and hate, but in our post-truth era with Trumpism ruling the land it’s harder to see. I do have faith in the younger people. They will suffer the consequences of this present madness and maybe do something about it. They are also less racist and that is heartening.

03 June, 2018 07:31  
Blogger Les Carpenter said...

I don't recall who said, the more things change the more they stay the same. But it does ring true I think regarding many things.

There always has been opposing forces at work within every human belief system and societal order. Thankfully given the ups and downs, and even with periodic setbacks, societal evolutionary trend is always towards progress and liberalisation.

The only real constant in large is perpetual change. And the pace of technological chage and scientific discovery is growing almost exponentially. That scares a lot of people methinks. Especially the very religious.

04 June, 2018 08:59  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

I'm an agnostic/atheist (depending on the day) who is nevertheless of a spiritual nature and who enjoys ritual that I find meaningful. Of course, there are lots and lots of purely secular, communal rituals in our society which provide a contemporary sense of community, belonging and meaning to many, many people. For example, cheering for a particular sports team and attending their games. This all requires regular attendance, special clothes, special chants and a lot of praying too, actually!

05 June, 2018 11:03  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Dave: I think it's mostly emboldening those who were already hateful, fearful, and ignorant. Just look at all the frenzy of hate directed against Obama starting in 2008. They're a large but shrinking minority. Trump only won because of a bizarre combination of freak circumstances, and the tremendous opposition he's provoking attests to the general health of the country.

Rational: Situations like this are frightening while they're happening, but they don't stop the overall progressive trend. Think of McCarthyism, for example. The fundies are enraged and full of energy because, deep down, they know they're losing, and have been for decades (actually, centuries).

Debra: Rituals of those kinds are different in that nobody harbors any deep delusions about what they're doing. The people in church rituals, except the ones who are there just to keep family members from hassling them, really believe there's an invisible all-powerful sky fairy who expects them to do all this stuff. That's what's disturbing to me.

06 June, 2018 05:25  
Blogger Sue said...

Dear Infidel and Friends, i am no Bible expert, but have read enough to have noticed a major theme. That is: for-real believers are few, and have been few throughout the Scripture's pages. Just sayin'...

13 June, 2018 13:53  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Fair enough, for some definitions of "for-real believers". But I'm more concerned with the practical effects that masses of believers have on society, rather that with whether they meet a given definition of "for real".

13 June, 2018 16:47  

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