In defence of the church

Observation: I seem to spend at least as much of my time defending the church as I do expressing my own, atheistic understanding of the world.

Discussion: Whenever I get into a discussion about religion, it can sometimes be difficult to express my views without being caught on one or another side of “the fence”.  It is generally assumed, for example, amongst atheists, that anyone who goes to church must firmly believe in God, Jesus as our saviour, heaven, and even creationism, whilst it is often assumed amongst theists that atheists will find no significance in religious thought, or that to be an atheist one must “believe” in the absence of a God as strongly, and with as little evidence, as any theist.

Whilst these claims may well be justified in certain cases, it’s not an approach to religious and philosophical thought that I am at all comfortable with. All discussion on this subject, I feel, should be balanced and understanding, rather than condemning.  And so it is that I end up defending the church, in those cases where atheists, and even sometimes theists, see it as a selfish, corrupt institution which provides no value to society.

I currently go to church because I sing in a church choir. I enjoy singing the music of the wonderful English choral tradition, and also have a fondness for some of the liturgy.  It gives one a sense of perspective when you think that these traditions have been going on for hundreds, sometimes even over a thousand, years. And another triumph of the church is its architecture.  These three elements make up the arts benefit of church – music, literature and architecture. So much of our cultural history has such close links with the church that you cannot deny the benefit that society has had from it.  In fact, the separation of cultural arts from the church has, in many ways, caused a degradation of the quality of those arts on both sides. Secular music, driven by the profit motive, and without any moral compass, becomes hedonistic, vulgar and, to take advantage of economies of scale, automated.  Whilst church arts, no longer being expected to be a cultural art in its own right, serves only to support the liturgy, and is therefore bland and shallow. This, it seems to me, is in stark contrast with medieval arts and architecture, and traditional choral music, which is of such high cultural value, but needed a context to justify it, and that context was the church.

The other really significant benefit that the church provides to society is the community benefit.  In a world that is increasingly fragmented, the need for building strong communities is more pertinent than ever, and whilst I personally regret that such communities should come together based on the pretence of religious belief, rather than humanistic commonalities, I still feel that it is better that there should be a community at all rather than none. People coming together in an environment that does not have an ulterior motive (such as profit or political power) is a necessary part of a healthy society. People coming together to reinforce their commonalities is good. One benefit of forming such a community based on the values of the church is that it also becomes a force of those values, which, in many cases, are hugely beneficial to society.  The value of charity, for example, upheld by the church, makes it a powerful force for charitable fundraising and support.  The value of care for others, to take another example, means that the church becomes partially responsible for the well-being of its parishioners, a service which may not be able to be provided by any other body.

Whilst the above defence can be used to justify the church’s presence within modern society, it cannot be used to justify the significance of religion as a core basis for that society. Religion (by which I mean the belief in and worship of superhuman powers) is quite different in that, in itself, it provides no benefit to society (even if it does provide psychological comfort to the individual believer), and can even cause a blindness on the part of believers to damaging effects where the distraction of searching for religious truth disrupts a human’s natural compassion (see this TEDTalk by Sam Harris). Science, however, is always searching for a universal truth, and is quite willing to change its beliefs when new evidence becomes available, something that religion is unable to do.

Conclusion: The two benefit spheres of the church are, in my opinion, those of arts and community with religious belief being a detrimental effect of the church on society. However, I’m open to discussion, where arguments can be justified. Discussion on the subject of religion is best when it is balanced and understanding, rather than condemning, and both parties in the discussion must be prepared to adjust their standpoint, lest the discussion will degrade into a pointless argument.

[UPDATE 24/7/12]: Related reading: Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion

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8 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted 30 January, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Hi Simon,

    I often find myself doing something very similar. However, in this case, for the sake of debate and intellectual integrity I feel the urge to take the other side.

    Regarding music. “Secular music, driven by the profit motive, and without any moral compass, becomes hedonistic, vulgar and, to take advantage of economies of scale, automated.”

    This is an enormous generalisation that applies to what is in reality a music that is in the minority regarding production, but in the vast majority regarding exposure. Creativity has exploded in all directions without the guiding hand of the church or state intervening in the cultural arts, and this is a great thing. Even if what is produced is awful, the fact that creativity is unhindered is intrinsically good.

    I listen to secular music, exclusively, and it is not driven by profit (exclusively), vulgar and hedonistic, nor is it automated – some of it is written by some of today’s most talented musicians.

    Regarding community. The church plays a role it has always played in the sense of creating community, and I agree this is something our society is lacking. However, in today’s society, community based on religion is actually very exclusive. Would we not be better off forming new paradigms and creating our own communities, rather than relying on old institutions? I’m not convinced that something is better than nothing really applies in this case. I don’t feel able to go to a church in order to be a part of a community because I know certain things will always be expected of me. The church is inherently opposed to certain aspects of modern liberalism, and so will always exclude. We need communities that are not built on fixed value sets, but rather built on the acceptance of plurality. Something is better than nothing is not good enough!

    yours,
    Not an Atheist, Agnostic or Theist

  2. alison
    Posted 30 January, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Great piece. In reference to your statement that science changes and religion does not: the sturdy ROCK by which Christianity is built is just that, a strong-hold that will not slip our from under us. We may change our beliefs, opinions or insights (sometimes day to day depending on one’s level of theology- less = more vasilating), but God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. How CLEAR is that?! In that fact, I know what is expected of me (charity, love, hope, using my gifts/friuts, etc) and I know that he knows me- evey hair on my head and is not going to forget that number.
    The art, literature and arcitecture is indeed a bonus and a beauty in its history.
    Arguably, there are newer churches who have little in any of these wonderments. New building designs, simple songs that took little if any time to compose and the absence of any true art in architect have made many churces of today,(I speak for America here), almost like fast-food. Profit IS a big factor and pushed.
    Even though science is constantly searching for the newest idea or theory, it can not take the place of that Rock. Science has its place in the exploration of healing medicine, sources of energy and much more. Man was designed with the thirst for knowledge by his creator :)

  3. Posted 30 January, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Mark, yes, my statement about music was a gross generalisation, but it does seem to me that the most exposed music is that which has very little cultural value. That is not to say that there isn’t some great cultural secular music out there, but, like architecture, music which denies the recognition of our cultural past is weak and shallow.

    “However, in today’s society, community based on religion is actually very exclusive. Would we not be better off forming new paradigms and creating our own communities, rather than relying on old institutions?”

    I totally agree! Unfortunately, secular communities which still uphold good values and are inclusive, and provide all the other services to humanity (such as cultural arts) are extremely few and far between. If one existed, I’d love to join it, but it’s hard to even imagine what it would look like, because to be cultural at all, it would have to recognise the religious nature of our cultural history!

  4. Posted 30 January, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Alison,

    “We may change our beliefs, opinions or insights, but God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

    This is only true to a theist. But, even taking the position that it is true, who is to say that the picture of the God that we get from the bible is actually anything like the one which actually exists? Shouldn’t the perceived nature of God continually be changing as our understanding of science, psychology and society change?

    In the same way, there are fundamental laws of science that are unchanging. We do not understand them all yet, but the difference between science and religion is that when new evidence comes to bear, our model of science is changed to match it, rather than the other way round!

    Churches which put profits before their values are wrong. Yes it happens, but it shouldn’t, and churches should be called to account when they do. Religion, however, prevents this calling to account, because they can claim that it is God’s will, whereas a secular community must appeal to our commonalities.

  5. alison
    Posted 31 January, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    Sim,
    “Shouldn’t the perceived nature of God continually be changing as our understanding of science, psychology and society change?”

    Perhaps how we humans imagine God may change or does change- an aura? A bearded man on a throne? oh, wait – perhaps a punk-rocker or alien?
    What he looks like is not the point. Even now, how I imagine God and how a child in Africa sees the creator is most likely different. But~ that same child percieves gravity differently than I too. Education, age, culture has taught us a certain ‘idea.’ And in that frame of mind, we can see and feel good about the fact that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. His promises remain the same! Just as gravity promises to hold me close to the earth as I walk or drop me from a bridge if I decide to challege my balance on the rail… niether has changed. Nor will they really change ever, regardless of society. God may be hidden and pushed down, but He is as real as the gravity. Niether is seen, but BOTH are real.

  6. Posted 6 February, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Alison, I didn’t say “what God looks like”, I said “the perceived nature of God”, which is a very different thing, since some aspects of God’s nature include things like “his promises”, which are very different depending on who you are and where you’re from.

    I was never disputing that the nature of God changes over time. I challenge whether your perception of God (whatever that might be) is actually anything like what God actually is really like (or even his non-existence at all). I’ll use the analogy with gravity to demonstrate:

    People used to believe that the world was flat, and that gravity acted in one direction – downwards. But when science discovered that the world was round, and gravity actually acts towards the centre of mass of an object (the earth), people’s beliefs changed to match the new scientific information. But gravity never actually changed. It was always like that, only our perception of what gravity was changed. Who’s to say that our perception of God isn’t like the flat world situation, that we’ve got the wrong end of the stick, as it were?

  7. alison
    Posted 7 February, 2012 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Oh, I totally agree and in fact will go as far as to say I KNOW that our perception is not what God it. How would we know? Of course, Christ speaks of His Father, but not in terms of looks or anything that we could relate to physically. He does inform of what God expects or will give to us or has waiting for us… but we each have a different imagination, so until we die, we are in the dark. And, if there is no God- we will definetly be in the dark- for good! ha.

  8. Lynda Edwards
    Posted 22 February, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I have been interested in people’s posts in this subject.

    When I was a child I always thought of God as an aged, bearded, enthroned, man sitting on a throne on a cloud surrounded by angels playing harps (also sitting on clouds!). My adult vision is unclear – not knowing what to think – God is a spirit but I am unsure if He has any form or not. People In the Know say He is not an embodied Spirit but is with us all the time. People may find this puzzling – or comforting.

    As for churches – I like them! Our church, St Thomas’ of Earlham Road, has been a traditional church with old-fashioned hymns, choir and organ. This is loved by some people but others feel uncomfortable with this type of service. Our new prospective Priest-in-Charge, Ian Dyble, is planning to introduce a good mix of services which will, hopefully, appeal to more people.

    I don’t see church as a building – I go to a church building to be part of a church of people gathering. I may go into the main church building to be part of what is happening in there – or the Church Hall to be part of things happening in there. Some people have things happening in their homes – which I also go to.

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