* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, November 30, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- Community

Another question that religion often seems to answer has to do with people's search for community -- a sense of belonging. Religion answers the questions, "Where can I find community? Where can I feel like I belong?" with caveats. You can find community here, if you believe the things we tell you to believe, or at least claim to. Religions are largely based on a set of beliefs, beliefs that often run counter to reality, and in order to be part of the community, you have to at least pretend to buy into those beliefs. Some people are so desperate for a sense of belonging that it seems like a pretty good deal.

A person looking for a sense of belonging enters into religious community and is told what to hope for in an afterlife, how to find a sense of purpose in service to an imaginary supernatural, and what to believe about the way the world works. It's very convenient to have someone tell you what to think, because then you don't have to go through the trouble of thinking for yourself. Some people appreciate that. So, we wind up with entire communities of people who have stopped thinking for themselves, willingly participating in a joint delusion that their emperor is wearing the latest high couture, because it's easier than wrestling with the messiness of reality.

The relationships people develop in these kinds of religious communities often wind up falling short of authentic connection, because the delusions offer easy responses to any concern that might be raised. People say, "I'll pray for you," because it's easier than actually diving into the muck of someone's pain. People say, "Trust God and it will all work out," because they have given up the capacity for taking personal responsibility in their lives. People say, "Those evil people who don't believe the same things we believe are going to hell," because it's easier to write off people who don't conform than it is to engage with people and learn from different perspectives.

And it's no wonder that people opt for easy, quick-fix answers. If they started trying to figure out the nuances of their religion's beliefs, they'd only confuse themselves. Out of one side of their mouths, religious leaders speak about infinite love, and out of the other side of their mouths, they speak with contempt for other human beings. It's more about power and influence than it is about helping people take personal responsibility for their lives, but because people have what seems like a reasonable substitute for community, they don't question it.

Of course, there are some religious leaders who say exactly what I'm saying here. They see possibilities for their tradition to take a different path that focuses on authentic connection and personal empowerment. Yet, they want to hang on to the same delusional foundations in order to create something different. They still want their communities to believe that prayer changes reality, and that a supernatural can take care of things that people are too weak to handle for themselves. It's hard to build a community of personally responsible human beings when you reinforce the belief that there is ultimately a supernatural who is in control.

Even in liberal religious communities, gaining a sense of belonging often requires conformity. It may not even be about belief in a supernatural or the power of prayer. Some religious groups require that their participants be passionate about fighting back against oppressors -- their version of "evil" people. Some religious groups expect people to use non-judgmental, politically correct language. In order to fit in and find community, people have to meet certain belief standards. While the motives may be noble, the end result is often just another set of trite phrases and pat answers.

Whether a religious community leans toward fundamentalism or liberalism, there is a tendency for individuals to stop thinking for themselves and go along with the herd. Those that don't, leave. This isn't just a feature of religious groups, of course. Groups of human beings tend toward homogeneity and mindless conformity. Religious communities amplify the issue by insisting that they know things that they don't actually know -- and often just plain aren't true. A homogeneous, mindless herd of people who believe that an all-powerful supernatural is on their side and is directing their actions can do a lot of damage.

At the same time, communities need clear identities. It's appropriate for a group to make a claim like, "We are people who first and foremost believe in shaming oppressors and fighting back against oppressive systems." Or even, "We are people who believe that prayer is an effective means of changing reality." If you share that belief in common, then you might find a sense of belonging with like-minded folks. Some groups even claim to be welcoming to everyone, but what this claim of hospitality actually means is, "We welcome anyone to come and be like us, and believe what we believe, and do things the way we do things."

Unlike the question of hope in an afterlife (which is better focused on hope in what we can do in this life), and unlike the question of purpose (which is better framed as one's decision rather than a destiny prescribed by a supernatural), the question of community and belonging is an appropriate question for people to ask. "Where can I find a genuine sense of belonging?" and "Where can I find authentic community?" are important searches that everyone engages in. Too often, though, religious communities require people to take the words genuine and authentic out of those questions, and people settle for a less than authentic community because they fear that there isn't anything else for them. People give up their own sense of personal responsibility, their own sense of self, in order to have a sense of community, because there are plenty of places that say, "You're welcome here, if you believe what we tell you to believe. You can belong here, as long as you do things the way we do things."

This question of community is worth a great deal more exploration, but for now it can suffice to say that the right framing of these questions doesn't leave out the most important words: Where can I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where can I find authentic community? We need connection with other human beings that empower us to live into a best possible version of ourselves, not restrict us to living into a best possible version that someone else imagined for us after reading an ancient text through a particularly warped lens. We need community that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person and allows for people to deepen their own connection to their deepest, most noble selves. Our sense of belonging is most meaningful when we are able to bring our whole selves into that community and find resources to grow and develop as individuals.

As we'll see moving forward, meaningful community includes five important characteristics: (1) mutual self-disclosure, (2) mutually expressed active and unconditional love, (3) mutual hospitality -- or willingness to be of service and to receive from others, (4) mutual honesty in communication, and (5) sincere affirmation. Healthy communities also have the ability to set clear boundaries and to define a central shared purpose or vision, but boundaries and purposes that create wholeness aren't based on delusions. Meaningful community does not require belief in anything beyond humanity. Meaningful community does not need to involve a supernatural. Meaningful community is possible if a group of people chooses to be intentional about putting these ideals into practice.

Before we look more deeply at how we might locate our hope realistically, take personal responsibility for our sense of purpose, and find a sense of belonging and create meaningful community without buying into mass delusions, there is one more basic question that religious pretends to answer. We'll take a brief look at the problem of evil next. In the meantime, don't leave out the most important words in your questions. Finding meaningful answers requires asking the right questions:

How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
What am I passionate about? What is my personal life dream that creates greater wholeness in the world?
Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community? 

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