As confirmed an anti-theist as I am, and as desirous as I am for a day in which religious organizations are redundant and fade into the stuff of history, I am not so blinded by my partisanship that I would deny the fact that churches do engage in positive pro-social activities. In fact, I find my cup of irritation overflowing whenever any apologist for religion (theist or otherwise) points this fact out to me, as though it was a response to what I actually am criticizing. It shows that, despite their ever-present calls for ‘tolerance’ and ‘understanding’, they are simply not listening to what the other side of the debate is saying.
It is a fact that religious organizations can count charity and social services among their many assorted activities. There is evidence to suggest that religious people are, in fact, more likely to contribute to charitable activities than atheists (although when the church itself counts as a charity, I question the true magnitude of this difference). Most religious adherents are good people who care about their fellow human beings just as you or I do. While I may question the validity of their motivation (‘because YahwAlladdha says so’ is a lousy reason to do anything, positive or negative), I will not deny the fact that homeless people, poor people at home and abroad, people undergoing family crisis, and people looking for existential guidance often receive help from churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious institutions.
Facing declining attendance and influence, churches are undergoing their own existential crisis. What is the role of a franchise that is considered antiquated at best, and harmful at its worst? What will become of those that rely on religious organizations for aid? Is there a future for organized religion?
After a dwindling congregation over the last few years, a commitment by both the community and presbytery has led to a complete turnaround for Queens Avenue United Church. The 52-year-old building is almost completely renovated and has a new minister on board who has been helping to shepherd the positive move forward over the last year. ”We’re still in the midst of a renovation,” Nathan Wright, the church’s new minister, said in a phone interview. “We’ll finish it next month. It’s been a 13-month project.”
The renovation of the church is not the remarkable part about this story, at least not for me. Rebuilding a church is usually accomplished through a combination of private investment and donations from congregants. It will likely come as no surprise at all to you that those who make donations are not predominantly wealthy people. They dig deep and forego spending on other things they might like because they see the construction as important – the normative pressure that accompanies being a member of a community probably helps with that a bit.
This is the part that I want to talk about:
In a way, the church has been transformed to become a multi-purpose building with the congregation at its core, but also housing other community and religious groups including two daycares, a tai chi practice, music program, other faiths and more. ”We have brainstorming sessions coming up to figure out how to better engage the community,” he added.
This church has grown beyond the traditional house of worship, adding secular activities and undeniably positive resources for the community. Beyond that, they’ve taken the extraordinary step of opening their doors for other faith groups, crossing doctrinal boundaries. I am not really a fan of ecumenicism – it seems to be to be a refusal to engage in exploring real differences – but to the extent that these activities are a reflection of promoting community participation and recognizing shared humanity, it’s hard to be too hung up on that aspect.
What does this mean to the secular community? First, it reminds us that there are reasonable elements within the religious community that are willing to put legitimate charity above doctrine. It also serves to highlight the need for community-building organizations, regardless of the motivation underlying such provision. If the secular community wishes to gain traction and legitimacy, one avenue we must explore is providing an alternative to the religious status quo. Many atheists and secularists recognize this as reality, and are beginning to respond accordingly. However, so long as the lion’s share of effort is being spent on countering the case for religion, we are undermining our own position by ignoring the reasons that many people support religion, even if they oppose belief.
The conversation is shifting in what I believe is the right direction for our next step. The public, if polls are any indication, are beginning to accept the case against faith. It is time for us to shift along with them and indicate how we can build a society that is not reliant on faith organizations for its community and social services. A society that recognizes the value of human happiness not because an ancient tome says so, but because we recognize that shared thread among all of us. A society that measures itself by how it treats those with the least influence among us, rather than how strongly we adhere to a list of commandments. A society that recognizes investment in its citizens not as an obligation borne of the whims of an invisible deity, but as rational self-interest in its own long-term survival.
The gradual encroachment of reality may take care of the churches. We should begin reorienting our focus to what happens when the last one closes its doors.