Here’s a point I’ve often seen made before, this time by Mike the Mad Biologist and Shakespeare’s Sister: religion provides an important social outlet in small town America. It is the social network, the source of community activities, and an essential part of the people’s identities. It’s more than just an institution, it’s the glue that holds the fabric of these little towns together. It’s their scrap of culture.
I hope no is too surprised when I say that I agree 100%. Church is a big deal; some of these towns have big signs as you drive in, listing the churches available. Typically, one of the first major community buildings that were assembled in the history of these places was the church, which would have a central location, and even today may be preserved as an architectural landmark.
I don’t know where Mike and Shakes live, but I’m smack in the middle of it. Here’s a map of our little town, pop. 5000, with most of the churches marked; there are a couple missing (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses hall on the NE side of town, and there’s at least one other in the SE corner of the map, and oddly enough, the big Catholic church, which is down near F, isn’t shown).
Believe me, I know about small town churches. My house is near D, when I walk to the coffee shop down near J I often go by F and G. I know you can’t get elected to much of anything without having some association with a church. People know you by your church affiliation; if you’re a member of the Federated Church (C), you’re probably one of those liberal types and might be a university person; if you go to the Evangelical Free Church…well, let’s just say I might cross to the other side of the road to avoid you.
What Mike seems to fail to consider (Shakes does address it) is this: is this a good thing?
I’ve heard the “they’re a cultural resource” argument quite a few times, usually from people defending their church, or from people who don’t go to church but make this semi-patronizing suggestion that it’s where the little people go for their little slice of Western Civilization. It doesn’t wash.
I look at that map and see waste and lost opportunities.
First of all, these are sectarian separations—religion divides people. Very few people will go to E one week and F the next; the fact that these social networking centers represent largely mutually exclusive networks is blithely ignored in these suggestions that the church provides identity. Even scarier, though—imagine these towns dominated by a single sect.
Secondly, it would be wonderful to imagine these places as sites where people gather to appreciate great art, music and poetry, and experience the best of religious history. Think again. A typical church service is a few hymns, a harangue from the preacher, a few recitations from a book, a prayer or two, and some organ music. What is celebrated is not art, but dogma. Sometimes you do get good material: the church I attended in my youth had an excellent choir, for instance, and one thing I think the absence of church attendance deprives us godless people of is the opportunity to sing, and get instruction in singing. But those kinds of performance skills always play second fiddle to the primary function of the church service, the liturgy.
As someone who does not believe, I would not sit through over an hour of up-and-down, recite this, drone that, listen to this homily, etc., for 10 or 20 minutes of good music. Someone from one sect will not stomach the rituals of another to see the same, either. Any culture is excessively diluted by the noise.
Thirdly, I’m sorry, but we do not live in the seventeenth or eighteenth century any more. Religion is not the rich and generous wellspring of funding for art any more, nor does it seem to inspire much creativity. We don’t have Bachs generating great art out of their faith—what we have is music and poetry and plays put on by the churches that are simply poisoned by strident preachiness. The adjective “Christian” prepended to music, rock, theater is a synonym with “dreck” nowadays.
The central flaw with the cultural resource argument is that these are not just social clubs. They are social clubs with an ideological and metaphysical agenda that often dominates their discourse and makes them incompatible with each other and with the goal of supporting a shared social environment. What us godless fiends are arguing is not that the church organizations are necessarily bad and must be shut down, but that they bear this ugly baggage that cripples them in fulfilling that role that the apologists think is a redeeming virtue. Imagine a small town without that useless superstition muddling up the picture.
Imagine a Morris in which everyone’s belief in God has evaporated. They would still appreciate each other, though, and still like getting together every week to talk and sing and share ideas—those aren’t religious ideals, but purely human ones. Choir practice would continue; they’d still work on the Christmas pageant; coffee hour in the church basement would be a regular event; pastors would still be counseling couples, or getting kids together for activities. The only difference is that they wouldn’t be doing these things in the name of a non-existent being, in service to weird doctrines that claim unbelievers, including the members of the social club across town, are damned to hell and deserve it.
We could have performances of plays by the enthusiastic thespians at that nice building F, and there could be chorale performances every week at G, and maybe there’d be a book club at E…and every play wouldn’t be an exercise in heavy-handed morality that praises Jesus, and the songs wouldn’t all have to be hymns, and they could every once in a while crack some book other than the Bible.
Alas, that’s nothing but a fantasy. It’s not going to happen in my lifetime, I don’t think.
But please, don’t try to pull this feeble excuse that religion plays an important social role in small town communities. Sure it does: it stunts them. It restricts them. It turns them into the boring drone of dogma. It gives them dribs and drabs of culture while denying the diversity of it. If we really wanted a Renaissance, first thing we should do is evict the priests from their temples and turn those nice, big, airy buildings into celebrations of humanist ideals.
Those of you in the comments who have somehow interpreted this to imply that I think rural America is full of idiots are completely wrong. I’m arguing exactly the opposite.
There are people in small town America who are avidly participating in Bible study groups every week. Think about it: they are voluntarily getting together to think and talk about text, to engage in literature analysis. They do it over breakfast. They turn off the TV after a long day at work and get together to dissect a book. This is wonderful. Some of them might kick me for this, but they are being public intellectuals. My complaint is that this intellectual activity is put in a religious straightjacket—they are only talking about one book, and a very uneven one at that, and they are using study guides that discourage questioning anything fundamental about it.
Another example: these people have a better view of the performing arts than we urban smarty-pants often do. How many of us think a night of culture is a matter of buying a ticket and parking our ass in a seat and watching a performance? Here in the rural heartland, you are going to find more people doing the art: plays are huge out here, even if they are done by enthusiastic amateurs. I remember from my church-going days having a couple of hours of choir practice every week and doing a performance every Sunday. Again, that’s art, don’t sneer at it because it isn’t the Metropolitan Opera, and it’s limitations are these annoying religiously imposed constraints on the subject matter.
Minds are humming out here in the rural backwaters some people are demeaning. These are smart people, brilliant people, talented people, just as good as the ones in the Big City, and my point here is solely that religion is a force that holds them back.