Monday, November 26, 2007

Atheist Society Only Possible under State Church?

After having stepped down from office, Tony Blair is reportedly planning to convert to Roman Catholicism. In a recent article, Washington Post commentator Susan Jacoby finds it ironic that the prime minister of a country with a state religion refused to talk about his religious beliefs during his time in office, while in the secular government of America, politicians risk political suicide if they don't articulate their faith. Apparently Blair's press secretary even responded to a question about Blair's faith by stating, "We don't do God."

But Susan Jacoby also notices a deeper irony about the separation of Church and State, apparently, "polls repeatedly have shown that only about 2 percent of the English attend services regularly, compared with about half of Americans. America’s separation of church and state, it seems, has encouraged the flourishing of religion."

To add an anecdotal account to this thought, we have two German students here at PLTS because while in Germany, where Lutheranism is the state church, the only time they felt the Spirit active in a congregation was when they visit the American Church in Berlin.

Susan Jacoby, with an openly secularist agenda, asks "Does the Christian Right, which wants to breach the wall of separation between church and state in the U.S., have any idea that religion itself has benefited from the nation’s secular Constitution?" Alternatively, one could ask if proselytizing atheists are aware that a state religion appears to be a death sentence for faith?

For me, however, the question becomes how does a religion which sees the need for change in society gain the power to change a nation for the better without getting so cozy with government that it loses its vibrancy as a prophetic voice from the edge?


Mystical Seeker said...

France is an officially secular nation with no state church, and my guess is that church attendance there is as low as it is elsewhere in Europe where they have state churches. So I am inclined to think that European churches are highly secularized despite, not because of, the existence of state churches.

Ben Colahan said...

You make an excellent point about the danger of assuming a cause-effect relationship (a danger that has been overlooked not only here, but is frequently ignored in many places). In light of this, allow me to rephrase my question.

Surely religion must play a part in identifying and addressing oppression in a society (at least, this is how I interpret my own Lutheran tradition). Religious people can achieve this goal by many means--peacefully and silently living the change they wish to see, fanatical violence, proclaiming existing iniquities and future hopes. Yet no matter which method they choose, if society actually begins to listen to them, they gain power.
There is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This may be true, and if you consider complacency to be a form of corruption, this is very true. Institutions and people who wield great power are often hesitant to change because change may cause them to lose power and the manner in which they have existed has allowed them hold power thus far. My fear is that religions’ goal of being heard inherently lends itself to making religions complacent at best and completely corrupt at worst.
This conundrum is true not only of religions, but also political parties, intellectual traditions, and an other structure of power. One solution is to do away with all these structures, but I am no fan of anarchy, nor would I wage is anyone who has lived through it. So the question stands, how does a religion that seeks to change society prevent itself from becoming a stagnant or even oppressive institution? In the Lutheran tradition we speak of a church that is semper reformanda (“always reforming”), but this is easier said than done.
Of some assistants seems to be religious pluralism, in which at least one religion is always at the periphery and thus available to critique the religion at the center of society. It is nearly an article of faith in America that this system works for politics and economics. Clearly this is not a guaranteed solution—as many people frustrated with the two-party system would point out—but it might fit the Europe/America religious division better than distinctions between secular and religious constitutions. While France may have a secular government, it has never been a religiously diverse nation (although with the influx of Muslim immigrants this is beginning to change).
Finally, an important question to ask is whether worship attendance is really any indication that a religion is not complacent or corrupt. I would answer “no,” but if you look at the number of people who are part of my congregations (not a lot), I may just be giving the answer that makes me feel best.

Jeremiah said...

"Finally, an important question to ask is whether worship attendance is really any indication that a religion is not complacent or corrupt."

I think it's important to draw a distinction between "religion" and "the organized church." A low worship attendance could be an indication that the members of a religion find the worship service largely irrelevant to their faith lives, and while this may share a relationship with the "health" of the overall religion, it isn't a given.

Mystical Seeker said...

I speak just enough Danish to be able to read a Danish blog by a Methodist pastor there. From time to time he rails against the official state Lutheran church, and he also complains about how boring the state Lutheran church services are. I also ran across an online archive of TV special on the Danish state TV network that showed a Lutheran pastor from Denmark traveling through the US, trying to make sense of why it is that half of Americans attend church on a given Sunday, while only 3% of Danes do. I couldn't understand much of the show, because my Danish is mediocre at best, but I remember him highlighting such things as the use of humor in service, and the passing of the peace (is the passing of the peace just an American thing? I have no idea.)

Maybe it is true that state-run churches tend to suffer from complacency.

Christopher said...

Last year at Advent time while we were visiting my partner's family in Germany, we happened upon an U.S. American intern we know doing his internship in a town near my partner's village. Being a pastor and soon-to-be-pastor, they went on an on about the low church attendance, lack of church involvement, secularization, blah, blah, blah. I told them as a layman, I simply do no see this the same way at all. Many Germans in my experience are quite faithful, but that faithfulness is lived out quite differently from what U.S. Americans expect, which is all about being at Church on Sunday.

Here in the U.S. faithlife revolves around showing up to the parish Sunday by Sunday. When the whole village, town, city is the parish or is the Church, much of actual Christian life takes place in the everyday and looks different from our voluntary understanding. Much of the apparently "secular" in European nations is Christian values become part of the culture, indeed, is the work largely of laity leading their lives and living their faith in the world.

I might add that from what we know of Church attendance by the time of Chrysostom in the 4th century and during the Medieval period generally, this has always been an issue. The clergy get concerned when the laity aren't there every Sunday and assume failing, lacking, or bad faith and this has badly mishapen how we understand the role of the laity. We're not auxiliary clergy.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think Christopher raises a good point.

There was a New York Times magazine article that I quoted from in my blog last spring. Here is the pertinent quote:

“The interesting fact is that people responding to questions about religion lie in both directions,” says the Spanish sociologist José Casanova, who is chairman of the sociology department at the New School for Social Research in New York and an authority on religion in Europe and the United States. “In America, people exaggerate how religious they are, and in Europe, it’s the other way around. That has to do with the situation of religion in both places. Americans think religion is a good thing and tend to feel guilty that they aren’t religious enough. In Europe, they think being religious is bad, and they actually feel guilty about being too religious.”