Lies and Bribes

On the front page (the front page!) of our local paper there’s a story about a local megachurch which is apparently modeled on Rick  Warren’s Saddleback Church, along with the Willow Creek Church, called the LCBC — short for Lives Changed By Christ. It’s in Lancaster County, PA, home of the Amish. I happened to drive by it a few months ago on the way to picking up a car, and was amazed that it had sprung up out in the middle of what used to be a cow pasture. It’s huge! I jotted down the name and looked it up online, because I was curious, then promptly forgot about it.  The story in the paper brought it back to me.

You might think, coming from an atheist, that I’d now tell you how objectionable this church is; you won’t be disappointed, but I do have mixed feelings. While I have concerns, they’re not so much with the execution, as with the whole concept of megachurches. On one hand, it seems to be very popular, and people flock to it. On the other hand, the reasons for doing so seem antithetical to optimal human experience.

On the plus side, the one aspect of religion that I cannot pick a bone with is the sense of community the church most likely engenders for its congregation. Looking at the website, and the article in the paper, they seem to go out of the way to create a pleasant experience for everyone, from babies through seniors. Rock music, balloons, a big stage where the service is more showmanship and entertainment than religion, all designed to make the experience easier to digest. Human interaction, where people can get together, create friendships, and learn about viewpoints of others concerning matters that affect everyone in a relaxed setting is always a good thing. I’m sure in the context of their Sunday services, this church makes the congregation feel good about themselves, and there’s really nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself.

On the minus side, it’s the way the plus side is used that bothers me. There is no evidence for the underlying basis of religion – gods – so without that, I doubt you’d find all these people getting together to listen to Christian music (an oxymoron if there ever was one).  Take god out of the equation and you still have a touchy feely, happy clappy, rock concert, though I suspect the audience might be a bit more discerning in the type of music.

Look at the church. You can see there’s quite a bit of money in it.  Operations like this don’t come cheap. Religion seems to have become a big business, with economies of scale supplanting the original purposes of the religion. Bigger is better, but bigger needs lots of cash, and being a non-profit organization, the only place to get cash is from donations and fundraisers.

How do you get a population that is increasing in numbers, while church membership declines, to fill the church? Make it fun. Mask the religious aspects with entertainment. Get rid of the pipe organ, replace it with rock groups for the younger demographics, organize interesting activities, and hire a charismatic preacher to fill the 115,500 square foot church.  Get rid of saying “Amen” after prayers. Introduce Steve Spielberg type graphics and pyrotechnics into the service gathering. Abolish the de facto dress code most churches require. Abolish long boring sermons, and readings from archaic books.

It’s quite deliberately a church for people who seldom went to church.

In short, make it so unlike a church that they don’t feel like they’re at church. The problem is, no matter how you disguise it, the message and underlying assumptions are still the same, and that’s the insidious thing that I find objectionable.  They have to keep people believing patent nonsense, because if they don’t, why would people show up? Why would they put their money in the collection plate? Without some positive, consistent reinforcement of the beliefs they were indoctrinated with since birth, there would be no incentive to keep a church of this size alive. Look what a member of the congregation said in one of the online story comments:

The thing that kept me coming back was the fact that for the first time in my life I was actually thinking about God throughout the week.

Now, that’s effective reinforcement.

It’s too bad we have to resort to tricking people to get together and act like human beings by telling them stories about mythical creatures that will reward them when they die. We do it when they are young, with Santa Claus, and whole institutions, activities and organizations band together to make children feel good at Christmas. It’s fun, and innocent, and harmless, but in the end we know what we are doing. We know we’ll have to pull the mask away eventually.

Religion does the same thing the rest of the year, but at what price? With Santa, we drop the charade once we get to the age of reason, but with god we continue the charade, despite the fact that the psychological processes are the same. Lies and bribes. First we lie to ourselves, we delude ourselves that there is a god, then we reinforce the lies with bribes – a promise of life after death. It seems like such a dishonest way of getting people to act like the humans were are inherently capable of acting like, without the lies and bribes. When religion has to go to such lengths to keep people coming in Sunday after Sunday, the whiff of desperation becomes pungent.

Why can’t we create a way to make people feel good about their lives, and band together in celebration of that life, without having to lie to them? We have examples  of the ability to do this already in place. We gather together for a lot of things we have in common – sporting events, theater, music – all things we enjoy. We have local community centers that organize all sorts of activities. There’s a whole infrastructure of community interaction waiting to be tapped.  Religion has historically filled this need.

We need to take it back. A humanistic approach to community organizing, emphasizing all of our commonalities, could supplant religion.  The up side is that it would be more reflective of reality, less dependent on a the supernatural crutch, and more inclusive, since it would not distinguish between “us’ and “them”, Christians and Hindus and Muslims, blacks, whites and orientals, etc. The tribalism aspect of these groups would disappear. There is no down side.

This is where you say “John’s getting all Pollyannish again” and I readily plead guilty. Common sense says this is how it’s supposed to be. Experience tells me it’s problematic, and for the most part a long way off. Religion is so entrenched, there would need to me a massive shift in human attitudes and thinking.

But one can dream.

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16 thoughts on “Lies and Bribes

  1. A humanistic approach to community organizing, emphasizing all of our commonalities, could supplant religion.

    This is pretty much what John Dewey had in mind when he promoted the idea of schools as centers of community life, places where all sorts of community activities, in addition to schooling, could take place.

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  3. “John’s getting all Pollyannish again.”

    The tribalism aspect of these groups would disappear.
    But, wait a minute! You’re making a plea for tribalism, “a humanistic approach to community organizing.” Communities are, by definition, tribal. Why do they need to be organized at all?

    Instead, why not urge your readers to transcend the concept of community altogether? Because wherever there’s a community, there’s an old biddy looking down her nose at those who don’t belong.

    • We’re social animals. We like to meet new people. Most of us do, at any rate. If we transcend the concept of community, soon thereafter they’ll be making Outer Limits episodes about us and crazy computers trying to return our humanity to us.

  4. A few years ago there was some attempt at bringing a “maga-church” into our area, but it came to naught.

    In their surveys they found that:

    1 The older population was pretty entrenched in their “mainline” traditional churches
    2 There was already a very active evangelical Hispanic and Black religious segment with people arleady in a “comfort zone”
    3 Most of the rest of the populations either had no jobs or money to support such a thing even if they were inclined to participate. Mega-churches need mega-bucks, and their surveys found that their likely congregants were pretty much broke.

    So, no mega-church around here.

    When a lot of the people I know wouldn’t have food on their tables, a roof over their heads, utilities provided for the roof over their heads, shoes on their children’s feet and clothes on their backs if it weren’t for Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, or some other religious based foundation, they tend to have what Twain refered to a “corn pone opinions”.

    Can’t blame them, really. No one else seems to give a shit, so they’ll sing for their supper, and regard people, and the system in it as “good” because it is good to them.

    Nothing else is on offer.

  5. …there’s really nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself.

    So you think there’s nothing wrong with the self esteem movement?

    A humanistic approach to community organizing, emphasizing all of our commonalities, could supplant religion. 

    Or the local bowling league could add some new activities, or the local book club. Perhaps the local ACLU could organize pot luck dinners and trips to AC. I don’t see why the fuck there needs to be a better religion.

    Look, there are some positives to serious illnesses, right? There’s the attention you get, the gathering of friends and family, and all that love and community, yet no one suggests trying to perpetuate that to maintain all those positives, or even how to substitute that problem with a better problem, and those who do try that are considered sick (ie – Munchausen syndrome).

    John’s getting all Pollyannish again

    No, you’re just not making any sense again. 😉

  6. Chappy

    This John Dewey?

    Larry

    Jeez Louise, there has to be some community. We are communal animals, by nature. What tribalism does is band us into small groups and pit us against other groups. Sort of like a soccer match. (Which kind of does away with my sporting events metaphor, especially when you watch European soccer fans, or even local soccer parents, choose sides and beat up on each other.) Are you suggesting we should all get a computer, stay at home and socialize over the internet?

    Sarge

    I’m glad there’s one area of PA that’s a little more rational than down here. Or less rational, depending on how you look at it.

    Philly

    So you think there’s nothing wrong with the self esteem movement?

    Those are two different animals. As a goal, the only goal, for child upbringing, it’s a lousy goal and an utter failure. The reason is because we tend to try to artificially make kids feel good about themselves, by imposing self esteem, rather than teaching them how to make themselves feel good about themselves.

    But human happiness ultimately is the benchmark for what’s moral and what’s not. So, we have to constantly self evaluate whether we are happy, and whether our actions cause happiness in others. If we aren’t or don’t, then it’s back to the drawing board.

    Or the local bowling league could add some new activities, or the local book club. Perhaps the local ACLU could organize pot luck dinners and trips to AC. I don’t see why the fuck there needs to be a better religion.

    It’s not about trying to create a better religion. It’s about using the activities and organizations we already have and, stripping mythical creatures and blatant fairy tales out, and using what you got to help create human meaning and happiness.

  7. SI:
    Yes, that John Dewey. He wrote prolifically about education, democracy, politics, etc. Here’s a brief statement of how he saw the relationship between schools and their communities.

  8. Well, rationality isn’t all that much in evidence in the general population.

    Two winters ago a house burned down in a town not far from here, and ten or twelve people in one family died in the fire.

    They were broke, had no utilities at all, and they were about to actually lose the house for taxes, I think.

    The bills for the funeral topped $100,000.00, and I guess most of it was paid by public donations, but the money was made available.

    When they were still alive, they were the proverbial “birds in the wilderness”, they could take care of themselves or die, but “don’t come to us with your problems”.
    Alive, fuck you and go away. Dead, pity, tragedy, community support.

    A dime for food or an extension on the loss of their home was “irresponsible”. In death, it was “can we do any less out of respect”?

    I think they were doing the usual, using gasoline in a kerosene heater to save money. It always works just fine until it kills you.

  9. I look at the sort of “community” that is created as a purchased facade. It is a hubless wheel, where the spokes all radiate in to a non-existent center. When one house burns down, they come together to provide aid…

    “In death, they are worthy of grief; in life, f*** ’em, cuz I’ve got mine.”

    What would one see in the event of a large scale disaster? “Sing harder.” Congratulating one another for having been saved by God does wonders for a community. The news crew interview is always of some idiot thanking his god for smiting his unworthy neighbors rather than himself. The survivors are better Christians than the children crushed beneath the schoolhouse.

    How do “communities” centered on religion face the aftermath of disasters? With their backs. True communities rebuild. Church communities flee.

  10. PZ Myers usually has a pithy way of articulating what I think. I wish I could say it the way he does.

    From here, talking about getting rid of ID and religion. He has great metaphors.

    I would argue that one reason that astrology (and religion) haven’t gone away is that people like the answers they provide, even if they’re wrong, and that celebration of wishful thinking is an epidemic in the populace. And one reason it persists is that we have a significant number of our citizens dutifully trotting into churches every Sunday, where they are told by solemn authorities that the universe loves them personally, and look, here’s an old book reassuring us that it is so. Religion is a cultural parasite that weakens our intellectual immune system, and opens the door to lots of other opportunistic infections. Jesus cults and astrology and scientology and snake oil and the Secret and quantum woo are the Kaposi’s sarcoma of a deeper disease—faith.

    We’re just now beginning the process of rooting out the causal agents of that disease, and what we need to do is promote more intellectual hygiene, like skepticism, which is the rational equivalent of washing your hands. The wishy-washy, ridiculous theism that Giberson promotes echoes the medieval scholars who tried to argue that bathing was a nasty habit.

    • It hasn’t gone away because humans enjoy escaping reality. Our history is full of it. Every culture has figured out a way to get fucked up. Ferment grains, beans, even honey. Eat fungis, lick toads, whatever. The Trobrianders have their old women chew on yams all day and spit the mash into a big barrel and that spit/mash mix ferments over a few weeks until you get alcohol. THAT will never go away, regardless of whatever the intellectuals say about sterilizing us from religion. Religion is not the problem. The problem is not properly recognizing and then dealing with that quintessential human desire to escape reality. There are ways to deal with it, including ways to satiate it, but religion isn’t one of them.

      • Yes, I agree with Sarge. You hit that nail on the head, pounded it down with one stroke. The fact that religion posits a completely different reality than the one we’re stuck with is the clincher.

        So, trying to take their favorite version of reality away from them is like trying to take a pacifier from a baby, or the needle from an addict. It can be done, but there is a whole lot of work involved in the process of convincing them that there’s more to life.

  11. An old ex-girlfriend of mine who was Catholic once told me that she chose churches based not on how well the message of that particular priest resonated with her, but on the entertainment value the church’s Mass provided.

  12. “It hasn’t gone away because humans enjoy escaping reality”.
    That pretty much puts it to bed, Philly, that’s it in a nut shell.

    I confess myself to have, on occasion, actually wished I believed in a deity in moments of stressful extremity. But, my father had all unwittingly inculcated the philosophy of Bill Shakespeare, to wit: “…This above all, to thine own self be true…”, so I had to face it stiffening my own knees, telling sheep-man voice to steady out, face what’s coming and keep your head…
    If someone says that a crutch at times like that would be nice, I wouldn’t say “no”. And yet, I couldn’t use one myself.

    The big draw of the mega-churches isn’t hard to spot, really. It IS the escape, the purpose, the belonging. It ISN’T “different day, same shit”.

    The man I trained horses for was the second atheist I knew, and I may have mentioned it before, but I’ll mention it again.
    He lived in a farm in southern Virginia, no utilities or any mechanisation. George Washington would have overseen the same sort of operation.
    He hated school (he went until he compleyted eigthth grade) and he hated Sunday school and church. But he went.
    Sundays labors were confined to “chores” if you were a man (women were problematic. big meal to fix and clean-up to handle…if there WAS any food available…), and no other work . Well, maybe sneaking in silage or haying, but society turned a narrowed eye upon such goings- on.
    But, Sunday was a day when the time you played with shit was minimised, the hours you looked up the rectum of an equid, toted things, and generally broke your back. No one could conscionably make you do ANYTHING.
    You could be relatively clean, go somewhere different, see different people, rub elbows and chat with (strained) familiarity with your social “betters”, and simply sit and do nothing, and think of nothing, and not feel guilty about it.
    If you actually believed in it, you were told that the next world would be “better” if you just held on. Your “faith” would be rewarded. No matter how miserable you were at that moment, there was better on the way. The death thing was not addressed.
    They cried in their churches because it was sometimes all they could do not to scream out loud at the life they led every other day.

    It think even today that’s a strong draw for religion or at least church attendence in the USA

  13. [don’t mind me, I’m just trying to get caught up here]

    I agree that the tactics of megachurches are generally deplorable, but I’m always confused by your insinuation that religion is a lie. It only takes a little critical thinking to realize that if religion is a lie, it is a lie promulgated by atheists, or at least non-believers of the specific religion.

    There is no evidence for the underlying basis of religion – gods

    Actually, what you mean there is that there is no evidence that you personally find acceptable for belief. You yourself have conceded that “weak evidence” exists in previous discussions.

    ..without that, I doubt you’d find all these people getting together to listen to Christian music (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

    That’s the second time in a half an hour that I found the word oxymoron being misused on this blog. Weird.

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