Not Religion, Per Se, But What?
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:
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:
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 We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness that has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, by the pursuit of contact with one another primarily for individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.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.
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.