Coffee Hour without Church

I had a courteous combox disagreement at Throne & Altar the other day with commenter The Man Who Was, over whether most liberals “hunger and thirst after [the] transcendence” that their philosophy forbids to them, and were religious in spite of themselves (whether or not they realized it), as I argued, or, as he argued, had pretty much dropped the notion and moved on to completely irreligious life – a life of spiritual autism, as Proph has called it – without appreciable discomfort. If I was right, then it could make sense to try to understand liberal behavior as unconsciously religious, whereas if he was right, such analyses would not be truly informative.

Well! I don’t think for a heartbeat that what follows is dispositive on that question – more on that in a moment – but it certainly is an apposite datum. Allow me now to adduce one of the most pathetic, risible and dunderheaded newspaper items I have ever read, in the Personal section of the Wall Street Journal for Saturday, 2/18/12: Religion for Everyone, an excerpt from Alain de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.  De Botton bemoans the loss of community and the rise of ennui, anomie, alienation and social dysfunction consequent to the spread of secularism, and wonders whether the forms of religion – rituals, spaces and times set apart from the rest of life as special, operating under different, special rules of social interaction, and so forth – can be used in purely secular institutions that will provide the social goods of religious life, while maintaining the atheist rejection of the substance of religion.

He proposes, for example, an Agape Restaurant:

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary [restaurant] dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. [How very Marxian: disintegrate the robust social organisms that, despite everything, still naturally perdure, so as to impose an ersatz replacement] Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

Though there wouldn’t be religious imagery on the walls, some kind of art that displayed examples of human vulnerability, whether in relation to physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic discord [Now doesn’t that sound relaxing and comfortable? Who wouldn’t like that?], would bring more of who we actually are into the public realm, lending to our connections with others a new and candid tenor.

*******

Taking their seats at an Agape Restaurant, guests would find in front of them guidebooks reminiscent of the Haggadah (the text followed at a Passover Seder) or the Missal, laying out the rules for how to behave at the meal. No one would be left alone to find their way to an interesting conversation with another [We all know how hard that can be!], any more than it would be expected of participants at a Passover meal or in the Eucharist that they might manage independently to alight on the salient aspects of the history of the tribes of Israel or achieve a sense of communion with God [of course, in these days of negative catechesis, that is precisely what is expected of worshippers].

The Book of Agape would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths of time on predefined topics. Like the famous questions that the youngest child at the table is assigned by the Haggadah to ask during the Passover ceremony (“Why is this night different from all other nights?” “Why do we eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs?” and so on), these talking points would be carefully crafted for a specific purpose, to coax guests away from customary expressions of pride (“What do you do?” “Where do your children go to school?”) and toward a more sincere revelation of themselves (“What do you regret?” “Whom can you not forgive?” “What do you fear?”).

The liturgy would inspire charity in the deepest sense, a capacity to respond with complexity and compassion to the existence of our fellow creatures. One would be privy to accounts of fear, guilt, rage, melancholy, unrequited love and infidelity that would generate an impression of our collective insanity and endearing fragility.

Can you imagine a more uncomfortable, repellent, deeply ugly social experience that does not involve at least the threat of verbal or physical abuse? Would you, indeed, ever in a million years eat at an Agape Restaurant if you had not been pushed do so by such a threat?

It would never work. Of course it would never work; people would revile the Agape Restaurant. Even if you changed a few things, and added back in some God talk that no one had to take seriously, it would never work. How do we know? Well, it’s obvious; for the last 60 years, liberal Christian churches and Reform synagogues have been offering just that sort of society without supernaturalism, sanctimony without sanctity – and they are dropping like flies. They say, “We aren’t really churchy very much at all, except that we are very polite like churchy people! Let’s all get together at church and socialize in a boring but nice way! Oh, and give us some money.” And – duh! – people don’t seem too excited about that.

The only churches that people want to go to, and that are doing well, are those that take the spooky, supernatural, blood and guts, meat and potatoes aspect of religion with deep seriousness. And that’s because those are the only churches that are even trying to satisfy our appetite for God. What on earth is the point of going to something vaguely churchy that isn’t really churchy at all? That would be like paying good money for fake food, or going to a cheese shop that has no cheese to sell.

People do still go to the mainline liberal parishes, because they still have the familiar smell of the hearty fare they once supplied in plenty (the odor of holiness is coming from the old prayer books and hymnals in the stalls), and everyone goes through the motions of eating the solid meat once served under their rafters; and so they remind congregants of the healthy way they used to feel when they enjoyed a good service of nourishing spiritual food. It’s an attenuated feast.

What de Botton is proposing would be even worse. It would be like eating fake food, that had no fat, no sugar, no protein, and not even saccharine. Even in liberal parishes, people don’t go to church because of the coffee hour, they go to the coffee hour because of church. Coffee hour without the slightest bit of church, which is basically what de Botton is proposing, would be totally lame.  Who would get out of bed on Sunday morning for the sake of coffee hour?

Despite the fact that they are a necessary, indeed integral part of church life, non-liturgical social events are not the primary business of the church, and are not the procedures that provide what church uniquely provides, anymore than the cafeteria at a school or factory is its primary business operation. The Agape Restaurant is like a proposal that we build a lot of really bad cafeterias in order to get some automobiles or refrigerators or educated kids.  To get the social benefits of religion, you have to do the work of religion.

Now, I might argue that the mere fact that de Botton has written this silly book counts in favor of my side of the disagreement with The Man Who Was. I might argue that de Botton’s book is strong evidence that even godless liberals hunger and thirst for what only religion can provide, and that they are willing to go to absurd lengths to try to get it. But no. All it shows is that de Botton himself, and those who buy his book and take it seriously, feel that hunger. The Man Who Was might be perfectly right that most secular moderns these days are simply tone-deaf when it comes to religion, and that that is why they, agreeing with believers, would find the Agape Restaurant stupid and horrible.

But that’s neither here nor there. The Man Who Was may well be right. What I think is really interesting about the mere fact of de Botton’s book is that it is a frank admission that without religion, society doesn’t work. Not because such societies have no coffee hours, but because without religion, society can’t really make sense. Without a religious foundation that provides to people a way of understanding their own humble activities, and in particular their labor, suffering, and sacrifices, as meaningful, valuable and important – not just to their families, or their communities, or their nations or tribes, but ultimately – they have no way to avoid the feeling, eating away constantly at their guts, that all their sufferings, all the privations they endure for the sake of virtue or duty, or even for love, are basically pointless and stupid,  sound and fury signifying nothing. And that suspicion cannot but vitiate morale, and undermine courage, at the point of every decision, thus ruining them, all: queering them toward self-indulgence and away from social coordination, so that at the margin, where the course of history is determined, social cohesion begins to fail. If nihilism is true, coordination of one’s own needs with those of others is nonsense. A society of people who preponderantly suspect that nihilism is true is therefore bound to tend toward decoherence.

As ours is now doing.

Secularists are not stupid. They are perfectly aware of the decoherence now under way in the West. Some of them even realize that secularism is its cause. That’s why de Botton has bothered to write this book. What is puzzling to me is that a man of his intelligence has apparently not asked himself whether the fact that his secularism has produced social dissolution might indicate that secularism is poorly fitted to succeed as a foundation for life because it is false.

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14 thoughts on “Coffee Hour without Church

  1. Excellent piece.

    I first came across almost precisely this ‘lame’ idea of New-Left encounter group politics in a context of church buildings in a fascinatingly revealing book by Don Cupitt called ‘Radicals and the Future of the Church’ 1989.

    Cupitt was the best known, most intelligent, most articulate, of the British ultra-liberal, non-supernaturalist, non-believing Anglican priests – and when I was not a Christian I was very taken by his version of intellectual history – until it became clear it led to nothing more or less than than the most extreme post-modern political correctness (in a vaguely Anglican context).

    What I found fascinating was that Cupitt’s ideas were very obviously self-refuting, I saw this immediately, but this made no difference to him. I assumed for quite a while that this must mean he had some argument that escaped from the fatal objection, but that I was too unintelligent and uninformed to understand it. But no – it was nonsense from the top to the bottom – pure, unsupported self-assertion decorated with theology, philosophy, hostory, cultural references and so on.

    *

    “What is puzzling to me is that a man of his intelligence has apparently not asked himself whether the fact that his secularism has produced social dissolution might indicate that secularism is poorly fitted to succeed as a foundation for life because it is false.”

    I think the difficulty is that a ‘decent’ man like De Bouton (and he does seem to be very pleasant chap, albeit conceited) cannot possibly accept that the things he most likes and the things he most fears are two sides of the same coin. It is indeed very hard to accept this, and we will squirm and evade and obfuscate in order to avoid this hard fact.

    The very very obvious fact that (for exactly the reasons you say) “secularism is poorly fitted to succeed as a foundation for life” is not seen to be because secularism is false, but because religion is an ‘adaptive delusion’ – the belief of folk like Bouton (I know this, because I was one of them not long ago, very deep into it) is that Christianity is false, it is a delusion, but it is a delusion that happens to be useful for generating social cohesion.

    This belief, in the reality of adaptive delusions, is itself immensely damaging – because it breaks the link between experience and reality – this doctrine lets people believe – it *makes* people believe, that there is no relationship between their experience and reality, and this fits with the prevalent modern idea that reality is defined by other people – in essence reality is a product of the mass media (the media being the medium through which systems like politics, science, law, medicine etc is transmitted to the mass of people) and through linked bureaucracies (who, as back up, impose ‘reality defined by other people’ on each individual person.

    *

    Bouton believes, therefore, that since the mass media define reality, if he can get his ideas incorporated into the mass media, and perhaps coercively imposed by the bureaucracy – usually in the negative sense of persecuting alternative ideas such as traditional Christianity, then Bouton-reality will become real-reality.

    Why not? For modern secular intellectuals such as de Bouton and Cupitt everything is all ideas, all the way down – and this is not secret, this is what they keep saying.

    Of course they don’t live by this, but that is their ideal and they cannot summon the courage to resist anything much, because this belief in the primary reality of the mass media subverts all resistance in the face of threats to their comfort and self-regard. To leave the media discourse is to be exiled and alone.

    • Yes! I was hoping you would write about this article. When I saw it I thought it was the most ridiculous idea I had come across. The thirst for greater meaning is hard for most atheists to overcome.

  2. Hardly the first time the atheists have felt compelled to have a religion of their own.

    Comte tried it in the 19th Century, with his “Religion of Humanity.”

    Before that, Revolutionary France had its “Cult of Reason.”

    There are probably other examples, since the Enemy is so tiresomely repetitious, but those are the two that come to mind.

  3. I was reading something recently which said that the English ideology could be summed up with this definition of the C of E: “The creed of the English is that there is no God but that it is wise to pray to him occasionally”.

  4. I have read a couple of Christopher Dawson books, and have also read the account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. He was already a Christian (in the Anglo-catholic tradition), but knew deep in his soul that he could only “own” the cultural achievements of the West if he first “owned” the religion of the West; i.e. Catholicism. Perhaps he looked at a place like Mont St. Michel and thought that the only way he could link with it is if he followed the dictates of the body that built it.

    Maybe these liberals find that the only way they can “link” with the values of the true West is to create their own version of the church, and can thereby have all the benefits of the Faith with none of the responsibilities. This idea would certainly match your (i.e. Kristor’s) analysis, and makes a lot of sense to me. I also agree that eventually this ersatz church would lose the “churchiness” and morph into coffee hour.

    Kristor, yours was a fantastic post, and I believe this website will help to preserve what is left of my sanity.

    Thanks,
    Finn McCool

  5. Also, just to clarify re: “spiritual autism,” I should not be taken as agreeing with TMWW that the modern can make do without religion. The religious impulse corresponds to a real and permanent need of the human condition which is basically universal. What I have called spiritual autism is not the absence of this impulse but the inability to coordinate to anything outside the autist (really, to orient that impulse toward its proper object). The result is that the modern winds up deifying other things which he endows with unwarranted transcendent importance: freedom, reason, science, and, ultimately, his own will.

  6. For an example of what such a “church” might look like, read a little about St. Peter’s in Lübeck (if you can read German). It contains art exhibits, and also serves as the university church–a temple to secular humanism, as far as I can tell.

  7. Proph’s final point above – “that the modern winds up deifying other things which he endows with unwarranted transcendent importance: freedom, reason, science, and, ultimately, his own will” – is crucial and deserves to be enlarged: to wit, modernity is not so much atheistic as falsely polytheistic. The secular modern worships not one God but many gods – the ideologies of the modernity, whose name is legion. This false polytheism is, in its own way, an escape from nihilism; it is also an escape from God. The scholar William Chittick treats the matter in some detail, worth excerpting here:

    Despite the chaos, everyone has gods that he or she worships. No one can survive in an absolute vacuum, with no goal, no significance, no meaning, no orientation. The gods people worship are those points of reference that give meaning and context to their lives. The difference between traditional objects of worship and modern objects of worship is that in modernity, it is almost impossible to subordinate all the minor gods to a supreme god, and when this is done, the supreme god is generally one that has been manufactured by ideologies….

    The gods in the world of [modernity] are legion. To mention the more important ones would be to list the defining myths and ideologies of modern times – evolution, progress, science, medicine, nationalism, socialism, democracy, Marxism, freedom, equality. But perhaps the most dangerous of the gods are those that are the most difficult to recognize for what they are, because we in the modern world take them for granted and look upon them much as we look upon the air that we breathe. Let me list the most common of these gods by their seemingly innocuous names: basic need, care, communication, consumption, development, education, energy, exchange, factor, future, growth, identity, information, living standard, management, model, modernization, planning, production, progress, project, raw material, relationship, resource, role, service, sexuality, solution, system, welfare, work….

    Anyone who wants an analysis and explanation of the nature of these gods should refer to the book “Plastic Words” by the German linguist, Uwe Poerksen. The subtitle is more instructive as to what the book is all about: “The Tyranny of a Modular Language”. Poerksen explains how the modern use of language – a use that achieved dominance after the Second World War – has resulted in the production of a group of words that have turned into the most destructive tyrants the world has ever seen. He does not call them “gods,” because he is linguist and has no apparent interest in theology. Nevertheless, he does give them the label “tyrant”… When this name is applied to God, it means that God has absolute controlling power over creation. “Tyranny” becomes a bad thing when it is ascribed to creatures, because it indicates that they have usurped God’s power and authority. In the case of the plastic words, the usurpation has taken place at the hands of certain words that are used to shape discussion of societal goals.

    As Poerksen points out, these tyrannical words have at least thirty common characteristics. The most important of these is that they have no definition, though they do have an aura of goodness and beneficence about them. In linguistic terms, this is to say that such words have no “denotation,” but they do have many “connotations.” There is no such thing as “care” or “welfare” or “standard of living,” but these words suggest many good things to most people. They are abstract terms that seem to be scientific, so they carry an aura of authority in a world in which science is one of the most important of the supreme gods.

    Each of these words turns something indefinable into a limitless ideal. By making the ideal limitless, the word awakens unlimited needs in people, and once these needs are awakened, they appear to be self-evident. …[P]eople have no real need except toward God. But nowadays, people feel need toward meaningless concepts, and they think that they must have them. These empty idols have become the objects of people’s devotion and worship.

    The plastic words give great power to those who speak on their behalf. Anyone who uses these words – care, communication, consumption, information, development – gains prestige, because he speaks for god and truth, and this forces other people to keep silent. After all, we think, only a complete idiot would object to care and development. Everyone must follow those whose only concern is to care for us and to help us develop. The [interpreters] who speak for these mini-gods are, of course, the “experts.” Each of the plastic words sets up an ideal and encourages us to think that only the experts can achieve it, so we must entrust our lives to them.

    Each of the plastic words makes other words appear backwards and out-of-date. We can be proud of worshipping these gods, and all of our friends and colleagues will consider us quite enlightened for reciting the proper [invocations to them]. Those who still take the old God seriously can cover up this embarrassing fact by worshipping the new gods along with Him. And obviously, many people who continue to claim to worship the old-fashioned God twist His teachings so that He also seems to be telling us to serve “care, communication, consumption, identity, information, living standard, management, resource…”

    Because the plastic gods have no denotations, all those who believe in them are able to understand them in terms of the connotations that appeal to then and then convince themselves that they are serving the basic need that is stated in the very name of the god, because, after all, it is a self-evident need. …It is obvious to everyone that these gods are worthy of devotion. Religious people will have no trouble giving a religious color to these tyrants. In the name of the plastic gods, people of good will join together to transform the world, with no understanding that they are serving man-made idols, idols that…“your own hands have wrought.”

    [from William C. Chittick, “Can the Islamic Intellectual Heritage be Recovered?”]

  8. “…these tyrannical words have at least thirty common characteristics. The most important of these is that they have no definition, though they do have an aura of goodness and beneficence about them. In linguistic terms, this is to say that such words have no ‘denotation,’ but they do have many ‘connotations.’”

    Interesting. It’s almost the polar opposite of nominalism. All universals and no particulars. Privileging the mental rather than the material.

    Literally casting spells, binding the world to the ideal image.

  9. Pingback: More on the degeneration of modern churches « The Orthosphere

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