Monday, February 27, 2012

Not Religion, Per Se, But What?

I hated chemistry in school.

I have this way of learning any new subject that is apparently incompatible with the way chemistry is taught (or at least incompatible with the way our chemistry professor was teaching it). In a nutshell, my stubborn mind refuses to move on to the next level of a complex idea until it believes it has fully (and I mean FULLY) grasped each concept along the way. It needs to fit in nicely with what else I know...with my world view...or my brain will simply shut down at that point.

I recall one day in class when, by insisting that her answers hadn't clarified some mundane issue for me, I frustrated our professor to the point that she insisted chemistry was one of those fields in which you sometimes just have to accept a point or two on faith until the "why" of it all becomes clearer to you (when you learn some latter concept that connects the dots for you). I couldn't do that. My mind would stomp its feet, like some spoiled brat in a supermarket who won't budge until Mommy puts back the Raisin Bran and buys Cap'n Crunch instead, and nothing else the professor said after that point would sink in at all. I needed to understand the previous concept.

I mention that as explanation for my response to a well-considered article by Alain de Botton [h/t A.S.], that recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal. In it, de Botton argues that a widely held, contemporary sense of loss of community may stem from a shift in our collective religious practices:

One of the losses that modern society feels most keenly is the loss of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness that has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, by the pursuit of contact with one another primarily for individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.

In attempting to understand what has eroded our sense of community, historians have assigned an important role to the privatization of religious belief that occurred in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century. They have suggested that we began to disregard our neighbors at around the same time that we ceased to honor our gods as a community.

He goes on to discuss how we might reclaim that sense of community "without having to build upon a religious foundation," and the piece is certainly worth a read, but I personally can't move past that last line until I work it out completely:
we began to disregard our neighbors at around the same time that we ceased to honor our gods as a community.
My problem with this concept is that it doesn't reconcile with something else I know.

My partner Murat, as many people know, grew up in in the capital of Kyrgyzstan when it was part of the Soviet Union (it was known as Frunze then, but is called Bishkek now). His family lived in a typical Soviet style complex with 20-some-odd apartments in the unit (there are several units surrounding a series of courtyards, meaning hundreds of families in all), and everyone knew everyone in each building and the surrounding buildings.

"I miss the babushkas who'd look out for everyone. Especially this one German babushka," he'll recount on occasion. "She had keys to our apartment and if any of our relatives asked to be let in while we were away she would give them a serious look up and down before deciding."

The importance of that memory is threefold with regards to why I can't move past de Botton's statement.

First, it underscores an acknowledged and strong community order or structure. The "babushka" as community busybody, but one that could be trusted to look after your best interests. One empowered without any state authority.

Second is the notion that community was in some regards more important than even family (or at least distant relatives). The neighbor had keys (apparently to many of the apartments), but the distant relatives did not.

Finally, it is no small matter that this particular babushka was German. Murat recalls a near complete absence of racial or ethnic tension in his community during the Soviet Union times. He reports that everyone got along with everyone: Russians, Uzbeks, Germans, Kyrgyz, you name it. Their background wasn't how they were judged...how they treated their neighbors was.

Ethnic and racial tensions came roaring back with the collapse, however.
And that's perhaps a big part of why Murat misses that tight-knit sense of community where he lived and mentions it often, as one does a lost loved one. Just as de Botton notes, many of us seem to long for it as well.

What held that multicultural community together in Soviet-era Kyrgyzstan, however, was something other than religion, obviously. In fact, it was with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which saw a resurgence of religion through Russia and Central Asia, that this sense of community eroded (and quickly). Yes, the economic instability (and resulting crime) that came with the collapse greatly contributed to people pulling back from "the other," but religion had never been the glue while their communities were strong.

Which leaves me wondering, what that glue is. I do believe de Botton has a point, in that this glue exists within communities where religion is less private and more communal, but it's not religion, per se, that creates or sustains the bond. It's something else.

In my more cynical moments, I suspect it might be a common enemy. Whether that enemy be Satan or heathens or the "rotten West" (or, even the state [i.e., KGB]), it may not matter. So long as it's clear to everyone that something out there wants to hurt them all, they instinctively know to band together in self-defense.

Consider this an open thread on what hold communities together and what leads them to fall apart.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The missing thing here is the size of the communities. The world has 7 billion people now and everything is larger now, the towns, cities, apartment blocks etc. People are mammals and tribal ones at that. When the tribe gets too large it doesn't provide what it did when it was smaller. Scientists say most people can only remember about 150 people's faces comfortably, after that people can't recall them instantly and it causes uneasiness. It's a much more complex topic.

As usual Murdoch's WSJ isn't thorough.

------ondine nyc

2/27/2012 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

a reader wrote in to comment :

"I guess I would be curious to know how long Murat lived in the housing complex and what his parents did for a living? I think when individuals use God as the glue for a community they are really talking about church
and shared experience. I think people are very lazy in how they use the words God, religion and church because they are each very distinct but that isn't the topic here. I would assume (but that can always be dangerous) that most of the individuals in Murat’s community worked in the same place, or a limited number of places determined by the Soviets.
After a while, maybe the interdependence of work carried over to the community at large. But beyond the shared experience I think the other factors that become the glue are time and mobility."

2/27/2012 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Saskia said...

Community implies caring and sharing.
Maybe the common denominator in the examples given is creating a non-competitive environment. It makes sense that that would be the first ingredient for allowing a community to flourish.

2/27/2012 04:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Aleksei Saunders said...

I've wondered on the affects of two things in this regard:

1)Most families I knew growing up in Canada were single income (middle class professionals). Dad worked and Mom stayed home, raised kids, and was social with other, neighbourhood moms. How has the apparent switch to dual income “necessity” (my style of living would be devastated by a single income) influenced the way in which our home oriented social network is formed? Have I been conditioned to desire a certain quality of life that usurps the ability to have a strong community involvement?

2)How has technology influenced our ability to interact? When so many are so involved with their electronic devices that they would rather check-in on foursquare or facebook than be present with friends is it any wonder that community has gone digital instead of incarnate?

My wife is Catholic and I occasionally attend mass with her. The religious community in our neighbourhood in no more social than any other collection of people that come together at one place (be it a concert, a sporting event, etc., etc.).

I don’t think religion is the answer to less connectedness with one another – I think less technology and less fear of social situations is closer to home.

2/27/2012 05:05:00 PM  

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