The Church of Conformity


falconIn the lobby during the intermission at classical music concerts, I almost never overhear conversations about the music or the performance. Indeed, observing such audiences mummified in their evening dress, with their vacant stares, suggests a certain shallowness of middle class interest in culture. The concert is more of an occasion to dress up and be seen, a sort of of class ritual. This isn’t very fruitful an insight, except that I immediately drew a parallel with going to church.

pewsI like to think that I’m far from alone in remembering feelings of oppression and bewilderment when I was made to go to church as a kid. Five days of the week I was forced to sit at a desk in a school, enduring a great deal of boredom for the sake of very little actual learning. The weekend should have been a break, but on Sunday mornings I was dressed up in a suit and tie (hot and uncomfortable) and taken to church. “Sunday school” was not school in any meaningful sense. The little we were “taught” made no sense; mostly we were just baby-sat. As for church itself, if anyone remembers sitting on wooden pews, standing and singing horrid and incomprehensible songs, and listening to the pretentious babbling of a bore in a black gown as a pleasurable experience, I would like to meet him.

I always assumed that the church experience was meant to signify religious truth in some way. Being a precocious child, I set to work reading the Bible, and although I was often confused and disturbed—especially by the Old Testament—I sensed the titanic nature of the text, the assumption of overwhelming importance and gravity in almost every line. Subconsciously I felt a great distance between the goings-on in church and the world view of the holy book. Sunday service was quite patently mediocre and petty, even to a young mind, whereas the Bible had a huge, looming, dramatic presence that quite dwarfed anything ever said or sung in church.

church_smallOnly much later in life did I see, in a way that the analogy with the classical music concertgoer makes vivid, that church was not experienced as significant in religious terms, but as a social event with a purely social meaning. Going to church meant that you were an upstanding, normal member of society. It signified one’s status as a conforming member of an acceptable group. It also reassured parents that their kids would continue in the path of normality. The “values” assumed under the rubric of religion were primarily general cultural values, such as obedience to authority, sexual restraint, and (to some degree) helping behavior. They were only religious in the most abstract sense. And to continue the analogy with the concertgoers, I never heard parishioners discussing religion on the steps after service. I got the feeling that it would have been considered embarrassing to do so.

I’m sure there were, and are, exceptions, but I think the exceptions prove the rule. My experience was with mainstream Protestantism. I didn’t notice much difference when I talked to my Catholic friends. I’m not sure how different it might be in the Jewish traditions. I suspect that it’s fairly universal, though, simply because the true religious impulse is not a common one. The idea that it could become common, that devotion to God, spiritual fervor of one sort or another, could become the status quo, has proven illusory. Most people just want to live their lives in reasonable comfort without bothering about the “big questions.” This has always been acknowledged at some level—in the ancient pagan traditions there were regular worshippers and initiates; in the Catholic Church the monastic orders were set apart from the laity, and so on. It’s only that the gradual advance of reason and science has made the forms of organized religions seem increasingly irrelevant to the real needs people have for social cohesion.

pentecostalFundamentalist Christianity was in many respects a “non-conformist” movement in the sense that it decried the lack of passion in the church, the lack of religious meaning in the church service. The fundamentalists brought enthusiasm back into the service for white Christians. (The black church is an entirely different matter—social and political conditions channeled spiritual passion there.) The Pentecostals and their like defied the upper middle class decorum of the mainstream churches, and in that respect seem like more of a lower middle class or sometimes even a working class phenomenon. On closer inspection, however, we find that fundamentalists are still wedded to a vision of social conformity, and that their religious doctrines follow from that vision rather than the other way around. There is a sense of great anxiety about liberal social change. The intense anger around feminism, abortion, and gay rights, for instance, is not centered on religious passion, although they think it is. The Bible has simply become the authority figure which absolves the worshiper of reason and responsibility—the written “word of God,” because it is does not require anything except obedience, is a handy tool for conformity to the social norm. For all their sound and fury, the fundamentalists do not mark a significant change in church culture. All they did was give it a sharpened political edge that isolated church members within their group through a shared sense of threat from secular forces outside. But when it comes to secularism, they pick and choose what to accept and reject—embracing the social Darwinism of predatory capital while fighting against scientific Darwinism because it threatens the centrality of man in the cosmic narrative.

jesuspotterI believe that all the stages of culture are present in any current stage. Children will always be pagans, and it is folly to bind them in suits and take them to church, and nothing less than cruel to deny them fairy tales, Halloween, and Harry Potter. For adults, however, I think that the church experience is becoming useless at best and harmful at worst. I have no idea what more healthy forms of social cohesion are going to look like, except that they will have to foster and reflect a more humane social order.


~ by cdash on August 30, 2009.

8 Responses to “The Church of Conformity”

  1. The only time in my entire life that my mother ever swore in front of me was when I was misbehaving in church, and it so scared the crap out of me that I thought for sure I was about to be struck dead.

    Of course, everyone else heard her swear too.

    I hated every waking moment of it, and waking up on Sunday mornings was like walking to the gallows: the being scrubbed until it felt like my skin was being peeled off, the scratchy wool suit, the strangling shirt and tie, and then my dad trying to tame my hair. Nothing good ever came out of it.

    And because it was a small town, everyone knew everyone else: you had to go.

    The plus side was that my dad would pass me notes with jokes on them to keep me entertained (and at one point laughing so that my mother swore at me), and afterwards we would go out to breakfast and I could have pancakes with syrup. Lot’s of syrup.



  2. Damn, Kevin. You just about told my story. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. The only “truth” about organized religion is, it’s dangerous and extremely destructive. There is no more powerful force in the world than that of blind faith.

    Recently I blogged about the on-going hypocrisy of the Catholic church.

    Case in point, as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, ME spends itself into fiscal bankruptcy backing the state’s antigay marriage effort, shuttering its churches and listing them for sale on the real estate market, one question looms tall: should Maine’s bishop still be living in a million-dollar mansion?

    There’s a race on in America between the pedophile Catholics and polygamous Mormons to see who is the bigger homophobe and douchebag. As of today, the Catholics are winning.

    I say, tax their asses into oblivion!

  5. i tend to agree with you … however, a minor anecdote.

    this past weekend i had the occasion to attend and participate in my father’s funeral. he was a devout roman catholic (and was deeply stung by the fact that all of his children pretty much rejected the church … but that is neither here nor there at this point).

    my sisters and brothers and i were not looking forward to the whole thing, a spectacle we feared, but we felt, actually, we knew, that we owed him this final gift, this respect of his wishes. (my mother, who passed away in 2003 had also rejected the church and there was little, if any ceremony at her passing and in looking back now, my father’s funeral provided a certain closure that we never got when she passed away.)

    maybe we were just lucky, but the priest who ran the mass and attended, briefly, our short viewing of our father, was a kind and compassionate man who understood and explained in a wonderful way the journey of a man born in 1920 into this complicated world of ours. an immigrant who fought in WWII and who made it through to the next century. this priest was able to help my sisters and brother and i achieve a new understanding of, as well as a final closure on, my father’s life that would not have been possible (i believe, since they were part and parcel of his simple life) without those familiar symbols of the mass: of life, death, suffering, an so on.

    my father, who had advanced alzheimer’s, suffered a stroke several weeks ago which rendered him mostly without speech. but as he laid in his bed, and i sat with him, i could see him attempting to utter a ‘hail mary’ … i held his hand … and we said the hail mary four or five times — him moving his mouth, trying to vocalize but unable, and me saying the words. then he laid back and it seemed that what we shared gave HIM some closure, although it would be several days in hospice before the end would finally come.

    ‘holy mary mother of god pray for us now and at the hour of our death. amen.’

    make of it what you will. anti-intellectual sham. deception. fakery. or perhaps necessary closure. the opportunity to find a small peace. perhaps confirmation for a simple man’s belief that his life was not in vain and he was not alone.

  6. Thanks for that moving story, Anita. For the record, I believe that we can access meaning in a spiritual tradition, and that meaningful experiences can happen in a church or other organized religious gathering. My essay examines the loss of meaning in such gatherings when they are done in a spirit of social conformity rather than as actual spiritual encounters. Which I dare say constitutes the majority of the time. I’m not so presumptuous as to call for the abolition of religion, or even think that such a thing is desirable or even possible. I do think, however, that a great deal of what passes for religion today has almost no connection to spiritual experience and has thereby become sterile and corrupt.

  7. i totally agree with you.

    and i apologize for going off on a tangent unrelated to your main point. your essay touched off something that kind felt as if it was giving me permission for me writing something that, ultimately, was extremely cathartic. so for that, plus your excellent essay, thank you very much.

    your posts are always full of food for thought and i’m very glad fairlane has decided to rev up his blogging engine again.

  8. Thank you. That was wonderful.

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