Sunday, May 27, 2007

Social Institutions

Religion, for all its misguided ideas and misdirected energy, has provided the context in which our entire society has evolved. For better or worse, this is where we are. Each of us is a product of our religious heritage. Even as we open our eyes to the realities of the world around us, we still harbor deep inside, ideas of religious origin, many of which have no relationship to reality. Some of these we can identify and expunge, while others won't be so easy to shake off. They will remain with us in some form and we'll need to reach an accommodation with them.

A great many of our social institutions and traditions to which we all are to some extent inured, trace their roots directly or indirectly to our religious past. We depend to a significant degree on many of these. If it were somehow possible to suddenly remove religion from our society beginning on a date certain, the result would be an unmitigated disaster, as much or all of our social order would rapidly collapse in the resulting cultural vacuum. This is how deeply entangled we are with religion today - even those of us who consider ourselves atheists, having outgrown the core religious beliefs.

Perhaps fortunately, societies don't change instantly. Change has a way of setting its own pace. Individuals can exercise some influence over that pace by actively promoting their ideas, but it will unavoidably take time for religion to finally dissipate. I would guess that the most optimistic plausible estimate in the face of a well orchestrated effort would be 3-4 generations, but more realistically, given the large and complex human population, it could easily take more than 10 generations.

In some ways this is a depressing thought - none of us will live to see a world free of religion and the strife it brings. We are condemned to live out our lives surrounded by religious institutions and traditions with people blindly following.

What we can do in our time and in each generation that follows is to actively promote the values of critical thinking, of introspection, self examination and self improvement, of acting to improve the world, each in our own small way. We can take some satisfaction when we see that our contribution has made a difference, however subtle it may be. The goal here is not to promulgate yet another dogma - on the contrary, it's to help equip others to think for themselves, draw their own conclusions, and join the discourse.

We can work to apply pressure to educational institutions to include critical thinking in every aspect of their curriculum. We can aggressively work to debunk religious dogma. And we can help nurture the garden of social institutions and traditions that, over time, should evolve to provide better alternatives to religious ones. These will not gain acceptance if they feel contrived. They must evolve naturally if they are to feel natural.

Many existing traditions now associated with religion may survive in some form; the seasonal festivals being a likely example. Instead of "Christmas", some kind of winter festival might survive. Some quickly dismiss these as "pagan" rituals; but why not celebrate the changing of the seasons in and of itself? Season change is a beautiful part of nature without superimposing any mystical or supernatural nonsense.

Internet social activities probably represent several good examples of new social institutions and associated traditions. Activities like Instant Messaging, "Chat rooms", Blogging, participation in various message boards, multiplayer online games - these are evolving rapidly; their own traditions and language are taking shape.

The coffee house is an increasingly popular gathering place where people go to socialize, study, work, or just get out of the office or the house. Other kinds of retail establishments are starting to participate in this phenomenon as well. Book stores led the way, often in conjunction with coffee houses. Increasingly other kinds of businesses are reconfiguring themselves to accommodate social gatherings of various forms on the theory that the more time people spend in their stores, the more likely they'll buy something. The commercial motivation in no way detracts from the social value of these experiences. This parallels the practice of paying membership dues or a tithe, or stuffing a collection plate, in order to fund religious institutions.

Present-day religious institutions and traditions are the product of a long and continuing evolution of human society and culture; a process that should be more than strong enough to eventually lead us beyond religion, beyond divisiveness, to an increasingly widespread philosophy of life that fosters mutual respect among individuals and allows intercultural suspicion and hostility to fade. So too, new social functions and traditions evolve over time and will continue to do so. More will come into existence. Some will fade away; others will grow.

Whatever form these new traditions take, what matters is that they provide a comfortable forum for social interaction in which people will actually participate, not out of some sense of obligation, but because they want to; and in turn will benefit from the participation, gaining knowledge, perspective, and a sense of community. Perhaps these kinds of inclusive interactions and shared discourse can eventually lead us to more effective means of reconciling or at least learning to manage our disagreements without resorting to factionalism and violence as has all too often been our way throughout our history.