The Role of Religious Communities in the Long Emergency

Sharon March 19th, 2009

My husband goes back and forth on whether to wear a kippah (yarmulke) full time or not, for reasons that are mostly too boring and arcane to discuss here ;-) .  But one of the fascinating things we’ve noticed when he is doing it, or when we are wearing kippot, is that we almost never get any comments on my husband’s weirdo head thingie from other religious people.  Out in rural areas like mine, where there are almost no Jews and no one wears a beanie, nobody says anything.  And part of the reason is that a lot of my neighbors do things for religious reasons that look strange to a lot of people – they don’t let their kids trick or treat, they homeschool, they wear funny bonnets themselves or plain clothes, they have ashes on their face once a year…  So while we stick out (not a lot of Jews out here), we also oddly, fit in.  I find this remarkably heartening.

On the other hand, when we go to Boston or New York City, my husband inevitably gets scores of comments.   A lot of them come from secular Jews, who can’t resist explaining why they aren’t religious, and others from people who want to know what kind of religious weirdos we actually are, or have an opinion on religion in general.  Since Eric doesn’t visually fit in with the obvious kippah cues (ie, we are not Chasidic),   I find it fascinating that in our neighborhood, where we are something of odd ducks, we fit in better than in a city full of odd ducks ;-) – but mostly secular ones.  Being visibly part of a religious community is not that unusual in Manhattan, of course, but the public wearing of religious communal identity is generally considered to be MAKING A STATEMENT. (The actual statement that underlies this is “It is just easier to wear the headcovering all the time, since we pray each time we eat and several other times a day, and are obligated to cover our heads when doing so, so why keep taking the thing on and off all the time?”) 

In recounting this story, I do not mean to say that New York’s attitude towards religion is bad and my rural one good, or that I’m necessarily better off with fewer Jewish people ;-) .  But I do think that the culture of religion – despite deep differences in theology – can offer some interesting common ground for believers of many faiths.  Underlying our faiths (and sometimes far, far underlying it, in the case of many religious cultures) is often a critique of the idea that materialism is what matters.  It can be hard to find this critique in many churches and shuls that I’ve been to – but it is there, and in Pagan, Hindu, Buddhist and Moslem texts as well, some closer to the surface, some further down.

I find myself wondering, then, as official representative of “visible religious weirdos” (I’m actually in a competition to see how many different kinds of weirdo I can be…ecological, economic…religious…political… I think I’m winning ;-) ) what the future of religion and religious identity will be in the US as things change, as we get poorer and our lives are disrupted in a host of ways.  Will we get more religious?  Less?  If we do get more or less religious, what kind of religion will dominate?  What will be its role? Can we get from the hidden critiques of our consumptive culture to some kind of coherent, cross-faith narrative that enables more of us to live well in the coming times? These are mostly abstract questions, and I’m not sure of the answers, or how much of my opinions is mixed up in what I’d like to see and what I expect to see.

But what I am fairly certain of is that religious communities are going to have a large and powerful role in the future – one that ideally, we’d begin shaping and preparing for today.  This is one of the reasons I’m never so delighted as when I’m asked to talk to religious communities – because in many ways, I think that they provide an existing infrastructure that is potentially powerfully adaptable to the life we will be living.  The whole project of Adapting-In-Place involves using what you’ve already got – and one of the tools we have is religious infrastructure, which provides things that few other institutions in our society do.  These are things I think we will need.

AI don’t think most people doing activist work have really tapped into churches, synagogues, mosques, covens and temples as ways both of getting messages across and also of creating resilient infrastructure.  While I know a lot of individuals working with their churches and local communities to raise awareness, start gardens, etc… I’ve seen few larger uses of the infrastructure of faith, whether interfaith (the fact that there’s no interfaith peak oil group at this point is actually largely my fault – I once asked Bob Waldrop if we should start one, he said “sure” and then I never did anything ;-) ), or within the larger infrastructure of any given particular religious community.  There are signs of hope here, but I’d like to see this progress faster, simply because I think as time gets harder, the functions of religious communities will become more important.

There’s a growing tendency to believe that religion is the root cause of a lot of our problems, and that we’d all be better off without it. Not coming from a religious faith that does recruiting, I’m really not that worried about other people’s religous and spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof.  I do think that the growing tide of books on the merits of athiesm tend to make some silly overstatements about the problems of faith, but that’s fine – the hostility to athiesm that our society has had has always been rather overstated too.  I tend to agree with Rabbi Steve Greenberg that athiesm is a useful and necessary corrective to people of faith, and that it is, as Eric’s grandmother used to say, “no reason to get your knickers in a twist.”  Thus, in some senses, despite the fact that I’m a religious person, and care very much about theological distinctions and beliefs, this isn’t the subject of this post, and I’m ok with divorcing them for this purpose.

I realize that there’s something a bit strange about concentrating on the practical merits of religious communities instead of their precise theologies, or the ways they can connect them that want it to their chosen Diety, and I’m not sure there’s any good way to write this without my seeming like I’m erasing the primary work of religious communities – worship.  All I can say about that is that even churches and other religious institutions admit implicitly that the value of worship is something that many people have to come to after they experience the *functional* value of religious institutions.  That is, one of the classic sayings in synagogues is that they have several “chances” at you – one of them is when you have children, and are forced to confront questions about what you believe and want for your children in terms of religion, another is when people lose their parents, and their worlds are shaken. 

In both cases, people aren’t coming to synagogue because they have suddenly seen the value of not sleeping in on Saturday morning or going out for beer on Friday night, they are coming for those practical and formal structures of their religious institution – they are coming because the synagogue provides Hebrew school and other Jewish kids for their children, or because they provide a funeral, a kaddish minyan and emotional support after a loss.   That is, those religious communities know that the hope of getting people in the door, the hope of getting them to stay long enough to find other value, begins with these more pragmatic functions.

And the reality is that there are few secular institutions that are prepared to fill the needs that people have at moments of crisis – this is what religious communities tend to do very well – they offer people access to familiar, structural ways to deal with events that change your world.  That is, they are there when you have a baby, and provide some ritual for welcoming that child.  They provide a kind of education in faith, even if the parents haven’t figured out all that they believe – they can pass it off (I’m a religous person who thinks that faith starts at home, and I don’t love parents who do pass off the big questions to Sunday school or whatever, but I recognize that religious institutions are used this way, and in general, I think some exposure is better than none, though perhaps not much better), they provide ways of dealing with death, places for people with no place, support for the aging, ways to incorporate new family members through marriage.  They may be the only place most people get sit down meals with other people who aren’t related to them.  They may be the only place where people who are socially inept can go and find some kind of community that will tolerate and support them because that is part of their mission.  Many communities provide volunteer services for the poor – they run the food pantries, the shelters, the relief organizations.  They get people in transitional and crisis moments and they offer formal structures to aid them- and those services get people in the door.  That’s not why we do it – or all of why we do it, but it is worth asking – what secular institutions can meet the same needs?

There are some that try.  Food Not Bombs does a great job of providing food to the hungry.  There are humanist and secular organizations, funeral homes and other groups.  But few of them do so many things, so cohesively.  And this is one of the things that sometimes drives me crazy about the hostility people have to religion.  I’ve no objection to people thinking my faith is a fairy tale – that’s fine.  But when people begin ranting about the evils of religion, but wonder why so many adhere, I ask them – ok, fair enough.  But are you burying the dead?  Where are the organizations to provide secular burial and rituals for the grieving?  Where is your rationale for loving even the really annoying people in our society who still need people who will talk to them and care for them?  Are you out there at the secular food pantry?  The secular shelter? The justice work, the fundraising for the poor?  Where do you provide free counseling for those dealing with personal trauma, help people wed and welcome babies into the world?  I’ve no objection to strong secular institutions these things arising – I would welcome them.  But I don’t see them, and I don’t think they will come rapidly into place before the hard times hit – since that would be now.

Like it or not, the existing structures many of us have for all these things, and also basic community building are religious.  That doesn’t mean that people willing to work at it can’t locate or build secular communities – they can.  But the easy access that is already in place is often in religious communities, particularly in rural and suburban areas.

And in the future, there are likely to be a lot more people needing food pantries, a lot more people in crisis needing support, a lot more isolated and traumatized people needing counselling, and a lot more people who can’t afford pricey privatized secular substitutes (this is not to say that all secular substitutes are pricey, but that much of what has emerged has had commercial implications) for what religious communities have provided comparatively cheaply (ie, the fancy “event hall” for a wedding, christening or bris rather than the church basement or shul event room, the expensive graveyard rather than the subsidized plot, catering by the volunteer committee vs. catering by Fritz…etc…).

There is also likely to be a retreat to the familiar, the comforting and the ritualized, and the need for community structures.  Many of the changes in our economic, energy and ecologic life demand that people reconsider what they’ve assumed and believed.  For better or worse (and what kind of faith we retreat to will depend on which one this is),   For many of us, after we leave school, work provides our social and communal structures – we socialize with coworkers, work organizes our lives.  But when jobs are lost or transient, it becomes harder to rely on that for community.  Where do we find social supports, people to talk to, common values?  Again, for many of us, this is our religious community.

 This, of course, presents a dilemma for people who are not religious, or who belong to a religious denomination not represented.  Do you join a group with which you do not share all your beliefs, or any?  What happens when church is how social life is conducted, and you aren’t religious?

 I think the answer depends on your faith and your relationship to it – I think someone who believes that faith is fundamentally false should probably work on establishing useful secular institutions that do what religious ones do.  I think someone with fairly minor theological differences, or a mild case of agnosticism should find the most compatible possibilities, if they want to work with a religious community, and then ask that community’s leader whether it would be ok for them to participate. My guess is that you’ll find more difference in individual believers in most communities than you think.  It really depends on the community though – for some people there are basic statements of faith you must make to participate, in other cases, some groups are open to people they believe may sincerely evolve in their commitment.  Some places won’t ask you what you believe at all.  Some religious communities may have evolved roles for those who cannot fully adhere but are supportive – high rates of Jewish intermarriage, for example, have forced many Jewish communities to evolve places for non-Jewish spouses, and many religous communities with high bars to participation (say, celibacy) have committed supporters who cannot be full members. 

And the question of open participation is likely to arise quickly – if things get hard enough, religious communities are likely to be first responders.  More and more people are likely to seek them out for support, and the question becomes – how do those of us who are religious balance the desire for doctrinal accordance with this greater need – that is, how far do we open ourselves to people who need comfort, need help, need somewhere to enact their rituals – these of course are central questions for every faith, and every faith is to some degree defined by them.  Do we marry anyone, even people who don’t adhere to our basic principles?  Do we want to include children whose parents don’t teach our faith, because at least we’ve offered them something?  Do we bury anyone?  How much are we here for those who adhere, and how much are we here for those who have needs who may not adhere.  And different religious communities handle the balance of faithful participation and openness in different ways. 

But however it works out – whether our community is only for those who adhere entirely to its rules and beliefs, or whether its doors are wide (and IMHO, there’s a necessary role for both – I’m biased towards greater observance, but I see the merits of the open tent as well) – preparing for difficult times needs to be a priority.  We face being overwhelmed by people in need, as donations dry up and costs rise.  Understanding what is going on, making education and the care of one’s own people (however defined – I include here the groups of the vulnerable we come to think of as “ours”) is going to be a central project for religious communities.    We will do things better if we understand fully what we are preparing for. 

And in the founding texts and deep in the culture of most religions (and not so deep in others – forms of Buddhism, Amish and Plain Quaker culture and plenty of others have managed to keep this right up at the top) are ties to a past of far less plenty, and narratives that may well enable us to live with much less, may enable those inclined towards belief to find a story to tell themselves about the future that helps them see not loss, but gain.  The good thing about welcoming those who we can welcome is that the primary religious texts that we rely on never did tell us that affluence and consumption were important – we may have forgotten this (while swearing, of course, that we never really cared that much about them), but it won’t stay forgotten, and perhaps, for some who come for the practical tools of religious communities, this part will stay, and bring them back to worship.


46 Responses to “The Role of Religious Communities in the Long Emergency”

  1. risa bon 19 Mar 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Beloved and I are members of the Society of Friends. She puts more into it than I do, so is in town on Sunday; I’m more Buddhist in actual practice and I obsess all weekend about the farm, and Long Emergency readiness, so seldom make it in to Meeting.

    The Meeting’s membership is primarily urban and while they are terribly interested in recycling every last paper plate and buying Fair Trade, don’t, as a group, tend to think about rpreparedness much. It’s all very urban professionals in tone, and people drive in from a wide range of localities which will, I think, get more isolated in the L.E.; so we may not be very able to keep it up as a group, either as a spiritual community or as mutual support, or both.

    The synagogue, down the way a few blocks, I’ve been there and it strikes me that the sociological and logistical issues are the same. One would think there will, you know always be a Safeway and it will always be a) stocked and b) affordable.

    Our neighbors are mostly Nazarene, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Church of Christ, and these congregations are out here in the country. This makes a big difference. Not only does everyone seem to have a sort of settled theological certainty (of a kind alien to me), but a social-networking certainty as well, which I do recognize — having grown up rural Church of Christ myself. There are not only the specifically pietistic exercises such as Sunday School and Christian Endeavor, but a lot of other activities, such as breakfasts, yard sales, potlucks, sings, and the weddings and funerals — to which we are welcome without having to sign off on a catechism or liturgy.

    These churches are rather like the Grange. It’s a way of getting to know who lives here, what their skills and needs are — what it takes to maintain a given family in hard times and a sense of what that family can contribute in better times — an amorphous and largely off-the-government-radar Safety Net. People will take an interest in your having a tiller and being willing to show up with it to help Mrs. Jones get her garden going while her leg mends — without demanding that you think like them — the Culture War is largely absent.

    This means a lot to me as a transwoman. For many years I was someone else, right here in the neighborhood, and now I’m me, and they all switched pronouns overnight, with not only no fuss but not much curiosity. My having skills and tools that are valued locally, and the ability to get along, are the important things.

    So, when it all becomes “Camp TEOTWAWKI” locally, we feel we could turn to the local Ch. of Chr. for reciprocity, in the event it’s too far to go to find other Quakers. That’s comforting. Good neighbors, with so much generosity of spirit, are worth more than all the rice we can store, I think.

    risa b

  2. Susan in NJon 19 Mar 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Oh, I shouldn’t have looked, I don’t have time to read this carefully and attempt to comment insightfully today or tomorrow, or until next week really, but I’ve been dying for a chance to throw my latest reading into the mix somehow (if only there was a post-Apocalyptic book club, maybe someone should start one). Anyway, Neal Stephenson’s latest, Anathem, has among its attractions an interesting take on non-religious religious-type communities (as well as religions) in a world of descent and apocalypses, major and minor. Just to say maybe dieties of any stripe, with or without capital letters or gender, don’t have to be in the mix, just like philosophical minds.

  3. Lisa Zon 19 Mar 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Wonderful essay. You’ve hit the nail *exactly* on the head of why I’ve recently rejoined the Church. In times when the needs are so great, the church is where I can find so many opportunities to serve, like no other. It was our Lutheran church’s forming of a community garden that really got me, as well as regular community meals and a rotating “church of the week” here in St. Cloud, MN, where the homeless and poor are fed and housed at various participating churches all year long.

    At our nearby University there is a Sociology professor who started a community garden on campus a few years back. She came to speak at our church last Sunday about our own, just-forming community garden, and the social justice aspect of community gardens in general. This woman is a lesbian, whom you would think probably doesn’t feel welcome in a lot of churches around here, and yet she IS being welcomed and doing most of her community garden work in churches these days. We are forming a network, in fact, of community gardens here in the St. Cloud area–and it’s the churches that are starting them more than any other group or organization.

    I’m thrilled with all of this!

  4. Brian M.on 19 Mar 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Well, I’m a Unitarian-Universalist, and one of the odd things about that religion, is that there is no minimal set of beliefs, only a minimal set of shared values, and it is now heavily populated by atheists, agnostics, humanists and other “non-religious” types who nonetheless find some value in being a part of a religious community. Our 2000 internal survey found that over 50% of UUs nationwide considered themselves atheists, agnostics, or humanists, and only about 13% of UU considered themselves Christian (we have a lot of Pagans, and mix and match folks like me too). So if you happen to be “non-religious” but nonetheless interested in being part of religious community, the local Unitarian-Universalists might be a good match. We already sorta ARE the “secularist” marriage/funeral/lecture hall/social action/pastoral care organization that Sharon imagines (except that we are more like an allaince between humanists, pagans and other folk who don’t fit in elsewhere, and believe that being in community with people you disagree with is good for you.).

    But more broadly I agree with Sharon, and point out that almost all measures of religiousity correlate well with social stress accross time and place. When times get hard in a society, religiousity goes up (in attendence, participation, belief etc.) Big changes in the nature of the religiousity typically happen during awakening periods not during crises, but during social crises existing religious groups grow in numbers and influence. That’s certainly what I expect to happen this time too.

  5. Brielon 19 Mar 2009 at 3:12 pm

    I come from a very rural area where the only forms of social networking are seven churches or Squirrely’s Bar (which is just as awful as it sounds).
    I tend towards a sort of faith, perhaps, maybe, in something above, below?, sideways?, maybe. And I agree with almost none of the doctrines of the available churches.

    I do tend to go to the Seventh Adventist church as it’s in walking distance, they’re vegetarians, and this particular group was sent out to the boonies by a larger church to maintain land for the apocalypse (any day now). So they understand the language of grain mills, chickens, and grow a beautiful vegetable garden. However, they’re also desperate to convert me, so I only go to church events, not the actual sermons.

    Another thing that I found helps is to get a part-time job whether you need the money or not. I spent last pre-spring working in the local greenhouse/hardware/feed store. Everyone in the area stops by sooner or later and most have a lot to say.

  6. Sharonon 19 Mar 2009 at 3:21 pm

    UU is just one of several forms of Christianity and Judaism (and there are pagan and Buddhist variants too) that don’t require any particular belief in G-d – some liberal Quakers, some Reconstructionist Jews as well as some forms of Buddhism don’t have theism as a pre-requisite. So there are a bunch of choices – I admit, I sometimes wonder how well the non-theist faiths, which have attracted a lot of adherents who often have to travel long distances to get to them – will do in teh longer term. But then that equally applies to Jews out in the country ;-) .


  7. Brian M.on 19 Mar 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Oh, this stuff is often also a good opportunity for Interfaith work.

    Robyn is scheduled to help at a food storage class at the local LDS Church tonight, for example, and food pantries are something that many religions cooperate on around here.

    Last summer when our town (and the next one over) had severe flooding problems, it was amazing to see the extent to which the local disaster response was run by multiple religions co-ordinating their efforts. I was the only volunteer officially representing the University rather than a religion, but half a dozen religions (+ the Red Cross) had each specialized in one aspect or another of the work (the baptists cooked all the food, the red cross got it to the people working or in destroyed homes, the catholic nuns did the paperwork and social work, the evangelicals were the first ones in tearing out the wrecked stuff, the Methodists were starting on the long range rebuilding, the Lutherans were doing middle range stuff, after the Evangelicals were done, but before the Methodists, the Mormons picked 2 blocks and tried to do everything there…, FEMA was still getting set up…)

    I’m sure there will be plenty of “protect our own” but I’m optimistic that there will be a lot of interfaith work too …

  8. Shambaon 19 Mar 2009 at 3:36 pm

    For centuries, maybe thousands of years, members of religious groups haven’t always believed in whatever theology/dogma/philosophy their group officially taught.

    I’m split in looking at religious or spiritual communities in two ways: they are great social structures for community and generally believe in compassion and kindness to the greater circle of humanity and other creatures. On the other hand, they can be very exclusive (them versus US), dogmatic and xenophobic.

    I guess you have to take the good with the bad and decide what it the most important to you.

    Peace to all

  9. annetteon 19 Mar 2009 at 3:38 pm

    “. . . the care of one’s own people (however defined – I include here the groups of the vulnerable we come to think of as “ours”)” – I must say I was surprised and dismayed by this. If religion is worth anything (IMHO), its in large part because it teaches us that ALL people are “our own”. If someone is in need and you have the means to help, it would be a very sorry religion indeed that would have you ask what the person in need “believes” before you proffer the help.

  10. Brian M.on 19 Mar 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Sharon, – well, it isn’t really clear that UUs are a form of Christianity any more, although we clearly once were.

    There are certainly other Christian and Jewish groups that don’t require any particular belief in G-d, but I’ve never seen one besides the UU were the majority or near majority of the group didn’t believe in G-d. When I was with the Quakers, maybe 1 in 10 Quakers in that group were non-theists, at most. The Buddhists often aren’t theists, nor are Pagans, but both usually have a robust set of alternate beliefs. There are also a number of explicitly humanist organizations, like the Ethical Culture Society if you happen to be in a city with one of their branches. And of course, it is a standard old American tradition to see one’s favorite local bar as an alternate social networking option to the local religions, but I might question the range of social services offered there.

  11. Matthiason 19 Mar 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    thanks for this interesting article. I can see your point that religious communities provide a social institution that’s already in place when need arises for alternative structures. Personally, I am very afraid though, that if times become more trying, a lot of secular achievements such as a decline in discrimination of homosexuals, respect for other philosophies, gender equality, etc are reverted. There are more open minded denominations, but I’d bet this is rather an answer to secular trends afforded by our recent affluent lifestyles than the basics of these religions….If one looks at a lot of religions, especially monotheistic ones, they don’t really stand out as the most grass-roots democratic institutions (given a track record of up to a few thousand years) but rather founded on mythological justifications for empowering a religious caste…
    I am actually rather afraid of ending up “the only gay in the village” surrounded by a pitch-fork (bible, torah, qur’an) wielding group of people, out for a scape-goat….Is this the flip-side of the coin (community vs. exclusion)? How do you view these fears and what would we need to do to prevent a reversion to earlier forms of religion in case tshtf?

  12. sueinithacaon 19 Mar 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I’ll confess to not reading carefully, as I’m a bit distracted right now by kids running about. I did, however want to comment that many, many of us who identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular do so because the social support aspects of religious communities are NOT working, at least not these days. I was raised in a strong religious community, and even though I never had much faith, or even agreed with all of the doctrine, I was committed to staying in the church for tradition, heritage, and community. Having gone to 12 years of Catholic school, it was a big part of my personal identity. Then came a time when I needed the support network (my mother was dying and my then-fiance and I wanted to move up our wedding so she could attend.) of the church and it absolutely failed me. We recently tried to give things another chance again with another denomination (Lutheran), and found them to be borderline abusive to our children. Personally, I see no value in relying on a religious organization to provide me with support in a time of chaos. I would much rather cultivate relationships in my community with people I trust, regardless of their personal belief systems, than rely on an organization which exists only to perpetuate itself.

  13. Linda Son 19 Mar 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I found my spiritual home in the UU church — we are a community of seekers who respect each others’ journeys as we respect our own. My journey has led me to paganism, but I am content that each of us should believe according to the dictates of heart, mind and soul. I wish I could say the same for many of the Christians I meet. Therein, I believe, lies the animosity many people have towards organized religion. Not only are others trying to convert me to their faith, but they are trying to ensure that I live according to their beliefs. A prime example would be the antagonism so many Christians have towards the idea of same-sex marriage —

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that while religious institutions do have the potential for being the heart of the community and of offering services no other institution can provide, I also see the potential for fanaticism that threatens the ‘non-believers.’ I would hate to see witch hunts come back into fashion!

  14. risa bon 19 Mar 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Matthias, if you read down to the bottom of my earlier comment, you’ll see I’ve looked into this somewhat.

    In town, I’ve seen some fairly ugly religiosity including a Catholic priest who testified at City Council that women like me should basically not be allowed to go to the bathroom — but I’ve also seen the “welcoming congregations” movement blooming. Locally it includes United Methodist, Wiccan, UCC, Zen Buddhist, Friends, UU, Presbyterian, Bahai’i, Christian Church, the Reformed synagogue, and two of the Episcopal parishes … All of whom testified in favor of a trans inclusive human rights amendment. There was a lot of Golden Rule to work with right there; it was very heart-warming.

    All the discrimination I’ve actually seen has been urban. But so has all the political support.

    Out here in the sticks it’s a little different — everyone seems to begin from a place of mutual respect — I’m just another old lady. If their well runs dry they can use mine; if mine runs dry I can use theirs. And the country churches seem to be the primary network for making sure that’s how it is. On the whole I like the not so politically charged country approach best, though perhaps YMMV.

  15. Katherineon 19 Mar 2009 at 7:30 pm

    You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about my faith community in connection with the things you talk about in your book and blog over the last few days. In the Baha’i Faith, we have no paid clergy. In many, I’d say most, we own no property. But we have a coherence and a vision that I’m very proud to be a part of. Having taken on the service of “tutor” in the community, I lead small groups in trainings based on immersion in the Baha’i Writings on the basic skills that make up a functioning community. Teaching classes for children at a neighborhood level. Animating groups of “junior youth,” those 11-14 year olds, and helping them learn to think about their world and serve it. Simple acts, like hosting devotional meetings in one’s home, or visiting others to study, pray, or just connect. The pattern is the same throughout the global community (and I tutored the same courses in Lilongwe, Malawi as I do now in Cleveland, Ohio). Sorry, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m just bragging about my own personal piece of the religious club! But when I see how much we’re learning about working together in this way, it gives me hope for the future of faith outside of the resource-intensive culture around us right now. Thanks for the post, it’ll give me plenty to think on for a while!

    Another (somewhat less visible) religious weirdo,

  16. Rebeccaon 20 Mar 2009 at 8:11 am

    I’m pagan, so it’s hard for me to find a community of like-minded people. (Though believe it or not, there are more pagans in the southeast than anywhere else in the country.)
    I still go to the UU church occasionally but I really have troubles with the rampant classism present there and the lack of support for members going through trouble or crisis. When a long-time member recently stopped being able to drive, instead of volunteering to give her a ride, the overwhelming reaction was, why can’t she just take a cab? Grr.

    I tend to think there are going to be a lot of religious upheavals over the course of the Long Emergency. New religions are going to emerge, others will die, and many will merge. That tends to happen during periods of prolonged crisis and I suspect this one will be no different. I also suspect the number of atheists will go down. Not because athesism isn’t as valid a faith as any other, but because it is to some extent a faith of privlege. There are very few atheists in foxholes or prisons.

  17. Mark Non 20 Mar 2009 at 8:30 am

    sueinithaca, that was beautifully said. My sentiments exactly.

    I can’t put a name on what my religion might be, but I do look to nature for instruction and inspiration.

  18. Willaon 20 Mar 2009 at 9:35 am

    Your article, and the responses to it have been very interesting. As it happens, I just read something yesterday that ties into this- from×18
    The Real Great Depression.

    “In Central and Eastern Europe, times were even harder. Many political analysts blamed the crisis on a combination of foreign banks and Jews. Nationalistic political leaders (or agents of the Russian czar) embraced a new, sophisticated brand of anti-Semitism that proved appealing to thousands who had lost their livelihoods in the panic. Anti-Jewish pogroms followed in the 1880s, particularly in Russia and Ukraine. Heartland communities large and small had found a scapegoat: aliens in their own midst.

    If there are lessons from 1873, they are different from those of 1929. Most important, when banks fall on Wall Street, they stop all the traffic on Main Street — for a very long time. The protracted reconstruction of banks in the United States and Europe created widespread unemployment. Unions (previously illegal in much of the world) flourished but were then destroyed by corporate institutions that learned to operate on the edge of the law. In Europe, politicians found their scapegoats in Jews, on the fringes of the economy. (Americans, on the other hand, mostly blamed themselves; many began to embrace what would later be called fundamentalist religion.)”

    And let me add the post apocalyptic book series I have been reading, which also addresses this- the Emberverse series by S. M. Stirling, starting with Dies the Fire.

    As a “fallen away” UU I often wonder where the secular food banks, etc., are. When I tell people that it would NEVER occur to me to apply for assistance at someplace with “Christ” in the name, all I get are blank looks. On the other hand, I’ve not started up “The Secular Helping Hand” to fill that gap, so I guess I can’t complain.

  19. Willaon 20 Mar 2009 at 9:38 am

    Let me add, in between the 2 paragraphs I quoted from The Real Great Depression in the comment above, I put the word snip- it seems to have vanished into HTML land. I did not include a paragraph that was between the two quoted.

    Sorry for any misrepresentation suggested by that strange vanishing.


  20. megon 20 Mar 2009 at 9:57 am

    After having a rocky childhood and adolescence within the Baptist church, I left it for the Lutheran church, which, while, generally speaking, more open-minded and inclusive, still wasn’t cutting it. They collected food for the local food bank, and I was always amazed at how little food this particular (mostly wealthy) congregation collected each month. I was also amazed at how interested they were about their own lives and how little they seemed to care about the community at large.
    I’ve always been interested in religions and believe that they can be wonderful things. I think that the sense of community they can foster is incredible, but in my experience I have always been the outsider, the excluded, the other within these groups, and so after much deliberation I have come to call myself a humanist. I do not attend a church.

    I do, however, feel that I have a community I can rely on and that can rely on me. Working on a small farm and establishing myself as a member of the local food movement has given me access to a community of hard-working, knowledgeable people who take care of each other no questions asked. We all have different skills and passions, and we don’t see each other at church services, but the Saturday farmers’ market is just as good and as regular as church, and we always end up discussing everything from the weather to the goats to the crops to politics to basketweaving.

    Our biggest problem, though, is opening the circle to others. We aren’t exclusive, but we don’t host community events or things like that. I should definetely start something like that. Thanks for the motivation, Sharon. We all need it.

  21. EJon 20 Mar 2009 at 11:06 am

    @ Susan in NJ
    Crunchy has book clubs:
    The Book Clubs

    * Affluenza
    * Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
    * Depletion & Abundance
    * Food Not Lawns
    * In Defense of Food
    * The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  22. feonixrifton 20 Mar 2009 at 11:24 am

    Off topic / I’m sure you’ve seen this, but: The Obamas are putting in a vegetable garden.

  23. conchscooteron 20 Mar 2009 at 12:06 pm

    My worst fear about this melt down is that we are all going to be pushed together more than ever. I grew up in a tight knit catholic village where everyone knew everything and I have spent my adult life being very picky about who I associate with, thus enjoying my time alone or with a select group of friends. The prospect of having to sit around and listen to the worst ravings of my delusional neighbors, just so we can get things done, is a nightmare. If there is a God this would be a real good time for her to put in an appearance and take the guesswork out of the regimented times ahead.

  24. jay moseson 20 Mar 2009 at 1:44 pm

    my wife and i are non-religious jews in south central wisconsin. recently we were invited to a survival/preparedness meeting with some of our neighbors. They are quite certain that the events described in the book of revelations are upon us. we don’t share their theological views, but leaving that aside, it’s remarkable how much we do share and how much cooperation and mutual support are possible.

  25. MEAon 20 Mar 2009 at 1:46 pm


    I think the point is that “our own” should include anyone who needs it.

    And we start with the idea of helping those closest too us becuase we can do most for them (usually). I mean, it’s great that I pay for the formula for 2 infants in orphanges partnered with the agency that place by daughters with me, but since I can’t physcially care for those children, doesn’t it make more sense for someone there to do that stuff, and for me to do something hand’s on for children in need close to me.

    I really can’t do much to confort someone who has lost family members in a wild fire in Australia — I can do something for those who have lost a family member in a housefire in Trenton.

    I don’t think we are saying, don’t give a damn for those who aren’t “one of us,” I think we are saying anyone who needs us is “one of us,” but you have to pick your shots.

  26. Frostwolf in Troyon 20 Mar 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Thoughtful essay, Sharon.

    I’m at a place in my training toward becoming a Feri tradition priest that is raising the issue of who I am as a time-and-matter-bender–witch or shaman, etc. I’ve read some other people like Paul Levy speculate that we ALL need to step up to our shamanic potential. Maybe that’s true, but how does one create a community of edge-walkers? How does one bring a center together of those preferring the periphery? Or as my teacher puts it, how do a bunch of chainsaw jugglers get together to form a circle?

    Because I prefer to be inclusive (which I guess could be summed up as including everyone including the exclusivists out there, since there is an exclusive adversary (or “satan” [sic lower-case] as per Hebrew, right?) inside me), I sense that there is a place for those who are dedicated to a path as well as those who are more lazy and undisciplined in their practice, who would much rather do the equivalent of punching a clock and putting in their time and going home, etc.

    Because my spirituality is syncretic and emerges from a 12-Step understanding of the addictive nature of the overculture driving all this insanity, I sense that secular people might get quite a benefit out of dropping in on Al-Anon meetings. Though the 12-Steps are Christian based, they are not applied that way exclusively. Jewish people, Buddhists, pagans, Unity Church members, etc.–it’s open to everyone. I’ve met atheists and agnostics in the fellowships as well. It’s where I first heard that wonderful Jewish proverb “Man plans and G_d laughs!” Yea!

    Because community is such a hard thing to try and do, 12-Step groups are labs to make valiant attempts. (Especially when there are business meetings to attend! Oy, talk about drama!) Al-Anon is probably the most low-impact of these “bridges back to life,” and one which everyone imprisoned in the vEmpire can “qualify for.” All that’s required is that a loved one or friend be suffering from an addiction. In addition to all the substances and activities and toxic beliefs I can jones for, I also have a craving for the tchotchkes of the “necronomy.”

    “In the rooms,” we try to provide the safety for people to come to understanding of the nature of our culture’s abusiveness and reckless endangerment. Whether someone is theistic or atheistic or questioning, it doesn’t matter. We’ve all pretty much been hurt the same ways. And there are some of us who are constitutionally incapable of “getting the message” that we can’t do it on our own, that we really need to be around other people. It’s by no means a perfect system, and it’s not for everyone. But one of the central ideas is “take what you can and leave the rest.”

    IMHO, that is the one thing that separates the fellowships from cults. While there are individual meetings dotting the globe that have overbearing personalities, and others that have doctrinal aspirations, those of us who need inclusiveness don’t seek to shut them down. But neither will I knowingly step foot in one. (And yes, every once in awhile a fever can take hold of several. I know of one of these that took place in New York City.)

    I can go on–and in fact, I tried to put even more than this in a previous post, but this is more than enough from me. I have a character defect of being overly helpful and detailed.

    How Ten of Wands of me. ;)

  27. annetteon 20 Mar 2009 at 3:48 pm


    I totally agree with you that we can only realistically help our neighbors, but the important question is who is included in the designation “neighbors”? Just those who are “like me”, or any needy human being who turns up on my doorstep? My reaction to the stuff about taking care of “our own” was because it appeared in a paragraph discussing how inclusive religious groups should be, and seemed to be concluding that religious groups should be about taking care of “their own.” Now I don’t really think Sharon thinks this way (at least that hasn’t been my impression), so maybe I misread it, but I’ve come in contact with far too many religious groups that do indeed think that way. I have always been partial to the parable Jesus told, where on the judgement day, God says “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, when I was sick or lonely or in prison, you came to visit me,” and the peoplle say “When did we do these things?” And God says, Whenever you did these things for the least of these, my brothers, you did it for me.” To me, thats the essence of all religion – I don’t think it really matters what you believe – what matters is how you treat the neediest and most vulnerable of your neighbors, your brothers and sisters and fellow children of God (or the universe, or the life-force – doesn’t matter to me).

  28. Susan Bon 20 Mar 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Guess it’s time to reconnect with the church group. Encourage and be encouraged.

  29. Pangolinon 21 Mar 2009 at 3:36 am

    Color me dubious but I have a hard time believing a wealthy nation with crowds of homeless people is going to to anything for strangers in a pinch. Sure if a tornado or a hurricane rolls through we all manage to co-operate for about 48 hours but that’s where it ends.

    Locally when we had weeks of fire evacuations people got snotty about sharing the donations for the “fire victims” with people who were merely homeless or looked poor. All of this occurred at a place known as “neighborhood church.” (ironically on the outskirts of town away from all housing)

    In an extended emergency some religious groups are going to get intolerant and mean(er). They WILL put people on the borders of their self defined territories with little or nothing to survive with. In disputed areas there will be night riders.

    While I am nominally a U.U. or a buddhist in a pinch I’m going and joining the local Sikhs. They feed everybody, no questions asked, and are excellent at organization. They are also excellent farmers and their elders will know how to manage without farm machinery.

  30. Jerry Silbermanon 21 Mar 2009 at 7:47 am

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, that religion provides a foundation of community which is usually more difficult to construct without an overarching unity of belief. I think the reason that this works is that it enforces a degree of humility and perspective on the members, so that they don’t fly apart as a result of investing themselves emotionally in disputes which are largely irrelevant — as secular left organizations and many “intentional communities” do. Whether a god really exists is completely unimportant to the functioning of the community; in terms of community function and individual integrity in understanding the world, the chair is occupied.

    The problem has always been, when the community of faith grows to large, is that it degenerates from lack of direct knowledge and accountability among community members. Hence such monstrosities as the Spanish Inquisition and the modern state of Israel — as well as the continuing success of deliberately small Amish communities, and the brief period of Hasidic dynamism when communities were small and the ossified dynasties of “tzaddikim” had not yet emerged.

  31. pkscottxon 21 Mar 2009 at 9:49 am

    This is a great thought provoking post.

    Here is a true life experience. Remeber Ike? I live square in the path of it, on the outskirts of a small rural community. I am not “from” here not am I a strongly religious person, nor do I actively participate in any church.

    After Ike, several of the local churches were active with “missions” within hours of the hurricane. While Fema wa still vigerously groping for it’s own posterior, these missions were boots on the ground with supplies and meaningfull assistance, like people with chainsaws helping clear the rubble.

    I was working on one of the main routes into New Orleans in the aftermath of Rita. I saw the first responders, grim men and women with guns, and right on their heels were a group called Mobile Loaves and Fishes. These were gentle geeky people who were speeding toward chaos with hastily laden U-Hauls full of water, food, and supplies armed only with their faith. Fema was actively discouraging this kind of activity, yet they went anyway. I cannot say enough about how much I respect and admire what I saw.

    After Ike, I had time to reflect on the role of religious organizations and churches in dealing with catastrophies, large and small. The conclusion that I came to was similar. I see them as extra governmental organizations that functions when govenment doesn’t . A lot of “life” out here in the boonies is already organized around the local churches and they do provide an infrastructure for social organization. The Fundamentalist Christian community isn’t very user friendly for someone like me, and who knows how squirely they will get in an extended SHTF scenario, but I can see them assuming an important role and filling a void if government becomes (more) ineffective.

  32. TheNormalMiddleon 21 Mar 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Born into a conservative Quaker family here in NC. (conservative Quakers are very different from liberal non-theist Quakerism….fyi)

    Practiced and proud of being a Quaker for 24 years of my life; married a Southern Baptist and all changed. Decided to raise our kids in the baptist church. Went, got hurt/burned and still never, ever want to go back to church anywhere.

    The older I get, the more agnostic I am. I wish I could feel religious again, but I think the hurts I’ve endured in church have pretty much taken care of that.

  33. Pangolinon 22 Mar 2009 at 1:06 am

    Giving due respect to Quakers, it’s easy enough for people to talk to god; listening until theres an answer appears to be much harder.

  34. Jadeon 22 Mar 2009 at 6:48 am

    In all honesty I’m horrified at the thought. I can’t think of a single religion that has worked out well for women.

  35. MEAon 22 Mar 2009 at 1:17 pm


    How does this sound — our neighbors are those in need whom we can help. If I just helped people like me, I’d never help anyone, and I think most people who have altruistic impulses feel this way too — we tend to see and hear too much of the exclusive “us only” help offered, I think,.

    On to other things — I’ve seen the Sikhs go into action, bags of rice on their heads, stoves on their backs, and they are damned impressive.

    I think there will be less and less grand and somewhat useless photo ops in the “lets help others” and more hands on. That is, less a pic of the excutives of XYZ corp putting a few cans on soup on a shelf and more people walking a few houses down the road with a pot of soup for someone.

    I know, I know, those who say push comes to shove we won’t do anything for each other, but history suggests that there will be people who share their last crust and people who’ll dash the last crust from a child’s lips into the mud and crush it under their heel, just for spite.

    And one a truely personal note of spite, I’d love to see all the church who consider me a nominal Christian because I don’t believe in their brand of exclusionism, crumble when they can no longer preach a prosperity gospel.

  36. HCon 22 Mar 2009 at 9:07 pm

    While there is both good and bad in all religions, I have learned that Religious membership is not for me. I was raised Catholic, then discovered womanly self respect and voted with my feet. I went religion shopping for a while but none of them really fit. I am now an agnostic who studies spiritual principles and borrows freely from various rituals when I need ceremony.

    For true spiritual community, I joined a very open-minded 12-step women’s meeting. When I married I asked a friend with the legal credentials to officiate and we designed the cermony. We invited family and friends to our home for it. When my child was born, I asked another friend who was a therapist/counselor to officiate in a naming ceremony which we also designed ourselves. We invited family and friends to our home for it. If my family ever needs food assistance from the community, I will go to a community food bank presided over by a large secular 501c3 organization. When I die, my family will use a local secular funeral services business and ask family and friends to come there for the funeral. Being married to a retired military officer, I assume the family’s future gravesite will be in a military facility.

    In contrast to my prior daily religious observances, I feel very empowered. I am not a lost sheep. I have both Self awareness/spirituality and Community support/belonging. I discovered that I do not need to sign up with a religion to get these things.

    If other people do, that’s fine with me too. It is all good. :^)

  37. HCon 22 Mar 2009 at 9:51 pm

    As for the role of religions in TEOTWAWKI, while they may do some good in the community, they also will naturally take advantage of the situation as a way to grow their troops – and to consolidate power for a self-identified voice of authority. As someone upthread said, widespread hierarchic religious thinking always brings horrific consequences for the social and economic status of all women and children [and of many men too].

  38. Stephen B.on 23 Mar 2009 at 9:49 am

    I dunno HC. With all due respect, your statements are rather broad and far reaching.

    How does hierarchic, religious thinking bring “horrific consequences for the social and economic status of *ALL* women and children”? (Emphasis added.)

    I can think of a lot of children over the years and in the present too that have been helped by many religious charities the world over. In many parts of the world, if not for some of the major churches, there would be no clean water and no schooling. I personally know of many religious people working in Haiti and Africa, some consecrated and some who are not, making a positive difference in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of children. Are those the “horrific consequences” you are talking about?

    If not for the Catholic Church years ago, my mother says her parents would not have had community to overcome their alcohol, family, and problems, surely casting my grandmother and her kids into a much lower “economic status.”

    I am happy that you have found happiness in your particular situation, but beyond that, I am not so sure that things regarding the evil, consequences of hierarchic, religious thinking are always as bad as you make them out to be.

  39. Stephen B.on 23 Mar 2009 at 9:51 am

    Oops, editing errors… I meant to say:

    If not for the Catholic Church years ago, my mother says her parents would not have had community to overcome their alcohol, family, and economic problems, surely casting my grandmother and her kids into a much lower “economic status.”

    Again, HC, I’m happy that things have worked out for you.

  40. Taraon 23 Mar 2009 at 12:03 pm

    HC, I completely agree with your first comment. I too tried religion in my younger days and frankly I just didn’t feel like I was gaining anything that I didn’t already have. I still largely feel that way. If I need help in a crisis, I’d much rather turn to my friends (of all stripes) who know me well. If they’re not available, well, I’m not afraid to be self-reliant. I’ll never belittle the good works that religious communities do – I admire them greatly. I do think, however, that it’s false to think that everyone NEEDS such a structure. On the other side of the equation, as a non-religious person, I never have to wrestle with the question of how much to include/exclude or help/not help someone based on their faith. I’ll be just as friendly to you as the next guy, and if you need help, I’ll give it. I don’t care one bit what your faith is. I think there’s a certain value in that, too. Something about participating in a particular religious group feels sort of limiting to me.

  41. Rosaon 24 Mar 2009 at 6:22 pm

    To be fair, if no one group does what the churches do, it’s largely because if they were starting now the churches wouldn’t do all of that, either. Give your local Atheist Potluck Neighborhood Preparedness Dog Walking group a hundred years, and see what they’ve branched out too.

    It is a little painful to see how much work can be poured into an activist/organizing space and just barely manage to recreate one or two of the services (soccer leagues; gardening advice; potlucks) the mainstream organizations provide. It’s a lot easier just to find a congregation you like and keep your mouth shut on areas of disagreement.

  42. HCon 25 Mar 2009 at 4:23 pm

    @Stephen B.

    “How does hierarchic, religious thinking bring “horrific consequences for the social and economic status of *ALL* women and children”? (Emphasis added.)”

    Being a man means never having to think about it.

    But if you want to think about it, then read ‘The Chalice and The Blade’ and ‘Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’.

  43. Stephen B.on 25 Mar 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Well, I have a mother that says the church helped her, so there’s one, so your “All” is wrong right there.

    I’m sorry you are so bitter.

  44. Stephen B.on 25 Mar 2009 at 10:24 pm

    HC, after another moment of thought, I find your attack on my gender really distasteful. The typical attack on one’s gender, or skin color, or sexuality, the kind of argument tack that is indefensible, is really low. I DID think about your comments for some time before I responded the other day. In fact, as a long time reader and poster to Sharon’s blog along with RunningOnEmpty2 Yahoo newsgroup, I dare say that I am thought of as a thoughtful contributor to both forums and to say, basically, that I cannot think about something because I am a man is pretty snide.

    As a gay man, I had been tempted in my earlier, younger days especially, to basically write off all straight people’s thoughts on anything regarding sexual orientation, with statements like “you’re straight, of course YOU never had to think about XXXXX” but have always resisted the temptation.

    I suggest, if you want to win people over with your arguments, you do likewise.

  45. Sharonon 26 Mar 2009 at 7:41 am

    HC, I personally find the “false consciousness” argument to be inane. The assumption underlying it is that all the value that women have found in faith, even in patriarachal faith over the years is because they were brainwashed idiots. But this, I think, is a deeply anti-feminist assumption – that women cannot flourish, and create productive space for themselves in problematic societies (oh, say, ours?) suggests that women aren’t very powerful or competent, which I don’t buy. I’ve read both of the books you recommend, and suggest that both of them come from an older-style feminism that had as an underlying assumption that women are always-only victims. I’m just as glad to see that version of outdated feminism mostly passing away for more nuanced thought.

    I’ve never known Stephen not to think about *anything* he commented on – thoughtful is practically his middle name. So far, I’m not sure I’d make the same case for your comments.


  46. Billon 26 Mar 2009 at 10:46 am

    Sharon: Tahnks for putting us straight on this.

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