|Temple of the Great Jaguar | Tikal, Guatemala |
Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0)
"The evidence that lies before us in great abundance points to organized religion as an expression of tribalism. Every religion teaches its adherents that they are a special fellowship and that their creation story, moral precepts, and privilege from divine power are superior to those claimed in other religions. Their charity and other acts of altruism are concentrated on their coreligionists; when extended to outsiders, it is usually to proselytize and thereby strengthen the size of the tribe and its allies." — The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson, pp 258-259
A professor at Harding University told a story once that stuck with me. His father had been a preacher, and so every Sunday and Wednesday night they were at church. One Sunday evening as they were headed out to yet another service, my professor, then a child, noticed a family in front of their home washing a boat that they had likely taken out for a spin that day. He asked his father, "what are they doing?" His father's reply? "They're worshiping their god, son. They're worshiping their god."
Religion is indeed something that serves to unify some people, dividing them from others to greater or lesser extents. It can easily engender that sense of smug self-righteousness that comes from believing one knows the right way to worship.
If you attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation at any point, you will likely hear the services referred to as 'worship.' Since UUs don't tend to agree on what to worship, if anything, this can come across strangely. While congregations have a Christian orientation, where such language makes sense, most tend to be gods-neutral or 'theism lite.' I've heard different UU ministers explain it to those assembled as 'worth-ship,' the gathering to consider and celebrate worthy things. I'm not really buying it, but I also don't care very much. Though I'm averse to the ill-considered use of words to have anything other than the commonly understood meaning, it's not a battle I care to wage. And, in any case, there is something special that happens when we get together.
Now, I've been in some dreary services in my day, and am probably guilty for having a hand in organizing some of them. At the same time, I've also left services at times feeling uplifted and encouraged. One service that we have at Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where I'm a member, is most definitely not called 'worship.' It's the monthly Contemporary Humanist Service, and it is anything but dreary. We sing along to popular songs that most people know, including Queen, Elton John, and Katy Perry. Just this last week our second song was Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." This most recent service was also one of the more powerful as well, compared even to those I've attended at the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It turns out that no reference to gods or the divine is need to feel as though one is standing on holy ground.
When the ancient Roman republic was in its heavy expansion phase it became a regular event to watch captives being marched through the capital city. They were jeered at by gathered crowds. Some were going to be executed. The majority were doomed to a lifetime of slavery. What was not mocked were the images of foreign gods that were carried in as well. These were celebrated as evidence that the gods of the conquered people did not favor them, and instead were with the Romans. Some even had temples built to them in the city. Slowly, pantheons consolidated, and as it had been with empires then and before, the gods with similar portfolios merged.
In heaven, as it is on earth, in a manner of speaking.
The consolidation of the gods is a result of the unification of various nations. Monotheism had the best chance of being an excellent solution to the problem, but then people couldn't (or wouldn't) agree on the nature of that god. The Christians argued among themselves for centuries, resulting in the various creeds of the first 400 or so years of the Common Era. The Jews were never on board with the Christian vision, and the Muslims rejected the trinity outright in favor of a unitary godhead. A further, serious bone of contention was how the one god, whoever 'he' was, should be worshiped and served.
Here we are, in year 2020 CE, with people as divided as ever over religion. And yet, I see potential for a better way forward. In developed nations outside the United States, organized religion has been in steep decline for decades. Now, the United States is catching up, with even the evangelical churches losing membership after having grown artificially for years by receiving those who didn't care for the liberalism of the mainline denominations. People are still interested in spiritual practices and feel the need for intentional community, but they are more than happy to seek these outside the framework of churches. Who can blame them?
Organized Humanism — which is really a thing — has fallen short for all but the committed non-theists, while anti-theists do well when they manage not to bite and devour one another. It's possible that Humanist organizations will find their way, with the American Humanist Association and the various other equivalent bodies around the world leading. Still, not everyone is going to be interested in the god-free existence many of us enjoy.
The point of reflection here is not how we can all agree to worship, or not, in the same way. Rather, it's a more personal question of how we can get along with others who do not share our perspectives and traditions. Obviously, this isn't really possible with those who deny the full humanity of others. After all, what relationship does light have with darkness? In those cases, it's perhaps more a matter of how best to insist on the human decency in the face of bigoted fear and hate.
This past Sunday, in that evening service where gods were not to be found, I felt I encountered something sacred in the songs and words that were shared. I also observed that there was at least one progressive Christian in the assembly, as welcome and affirmed as everyone else. I think I saw a glimpse of what could be.