Saturday, October 2, 2010

Religion is the only institutional counter to market values

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, Oct 13, 2007

TERRE HAUTE — By many measures, the United States of America is the most religious of industrialized countries.

At the same time, our culture appears, in many ways, to be quite the opposite, or at least not in keeping with a religious people. Recent scholarship suggests that while fewer people may be connected with a church, spirituality is increasing.

A good reason, sociologically, to keep religion vibrant is to counter the market values inherent in a capitalist society. So much of what we complain about in our society, the crudity, the sexuality, many of the problems with the media, all have to do with selling.

The only institutional counter on those market values is religion. The basic thrust of all religions is selflessness and concern for others. The basic thrust of the market is to satisfy “me.” Here are 10 simple steps individuals can take to improve formal religion.

10 simple things you can do to improve religion

This is fourth in a series of five essays about simple things individuals can do to improve our social institutions. A social institution is a framework for solving societal problems. All societies must solve the same problems, but they do it differently. They must tie adult responsibility to children (marriage and family), socialize children into productive roles (education), solve the problem of order and leadership (politics), justify societal practices as “good” (religion), and produce and distribute needed goods and services (economy). My suggestions are not about changing our institutions as much as making the current ones, as currently defined, work a little better. Today’s focus is on religion.

1. Take part regularly in a faith — community. Faith communities today, influenced in many ways by our market values, now come in so many variants that virtually anyone, even an avowed atheist, can find a faith community to participate in. When you buy anything, you are reproducing the market; hence, to reproduce religion, you have to participate.

2. Support a faith community with your money. Contrary to the most cynical and the most devout, the money comes from people, not a supernatural being. Churches need cash to survive, to do the work that reflects those nonmarket values.

3. Support a faith community with your time and talents. Market logic follows that we don’t do anything unless we are paid/rewarded for it. So, volunteering your time and talent to a faith community is itself a counter to the market-driven values that corrode our civil society. As well, our time and talent also build the community of people who share and strengthen your struggle to live against the consumer culture.

4. Make religion about values and understand what values are: Values are standards by which we judge “things” as good or bad. We value freedom, so we don’t like to be told what to do. So, in the vein of values, find values in your faith community to embrace and do so. Whether it be honesty, charity, concern for the poor, whatever.

5. For believers, sharing faith is expected and easy, for those who are uncomfortable with that, then share your values with others and don’t be afraid to credit your faith community as a source for those values. In our individualistic society, we too often credit good deeds to just good individuals, failing to recognize the social fabric which makes that “good” possible. If someone asks us what kind of car we like, we don’t hesitate to tell them. Why not share your brand of value community with others, too?

6. Take children to a faith community. Young children share quite easily. In school they learn to justify inequality. Research shows the more schooling they have, the more inequality they are willing to accept, even to promote it. That says something about the experience of schooling in our society. Religion is about values and beliefs. Use the youth activities in your faith community to “inoculate” children from those values that promote inequality and divisiveness. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll destroy individual lives, but not necessarily society. Values that support ruthless attitudes like “produce or die,” dehumanize people and undermine any sense of a “caring” or compassionate society.

7. Participate in one of the ministries/missions/charities of your faith community. Some ministries/missions/charities are about evangelizing which many people are uncomfortable with. But others are about helping others, whether it be kids who don’t have great home lives with homework, Habitat for Humanity, shut-ins, the list is endless and usually reflects the needs of your local community, In any case give of your self in a charitable way that is sponsored or facilitated by your faith community. And yes, you can just go directly to Habitat for Humanity and volunteer, or many such “secular” groups who also give their time and talent to such worthy causes, but a faith community is the most comprehensive, the broadest umbrella of values that support “charity”. Volunteering for the after school program at your church will encourage others to volunteer, though perhaps not for the after school program, but perhaps for the soup kitchen.

8. Participate in the rituals in your faith community. Worship practices are rituals. So are carry-in suppers. Rituals are about meaning. By participating in the faith community rituals, you make meaning around the faith community values. And participating in the rituals strengthens the community which in turn strengthen the non-market values.

9. Be selfless and serve others. We have survived so far as a species because we have learned to organize ourselves. Our survival is based on our human interdependence. A radical individualistic ideology tears at that interdependence. This ideology finds its home in an unrestrained free market where “let the market decide” is the mantra. Religion, with its claim on moral virtue, is a key counter to preserving the very idea of a shared culture, mutual obligation, or even enforceable standards of right and wrong. Of course, too much of this swings back the other way, to totalitarianism, like the kind the Taliban represent. Balance is key and we swing hard toward individualism so we need brakes. Be an individual but carve out space to be selfless and serve others. Faith communities are wonderful for helping us do that.

10. Live your life with value integrity. What does that mean? I’ll admit, I tried to keep these steps simple, but this one definitely needs explanation. By integrity I mean an unreduced or unbroken completeness or totality. The desire for this can be seen when people speak of their “true self” or “true nature.” The fact is, however, that a “true self” is a fiction. We have many selves related to the many different roles we play in life. And our behavior, research tells us, is explained by the situations we find ourselves in more so than by some kind of moral righteousness. Good people do bad things if put in the situation that calls forth bad responses. However, since we have self identity, we can decide on certain aspects of our self that we want to be part of our “true self.” Those things are going to be related to the values we find represented and supported in our faith communities.

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