In recent article at the CT web site, Alistair McGrath examines the waning influence of atheism. Once considered the philosophical tsunami that would inevitably overtake the western world (at the very least), it is now a non-factor in public and political life, relegated to fewer people who largely keep their lack of religious belief to themselves.
McGrath offers a thoroughgoing critique but quite interesting (and relevant to our recent church musings) is this section:
With the breakdown of social cohesion in recent decades, creating a sense of community has become an increasingly important political issue in many Western cultures. The question of how community can be recovered invites a comparison of religious and atheistic approaches...Christian churches have long been the centers of community life in the West. People want to belong, not just believe.
The growth of community churches has helped meet this need. There is a sense of belonging to a common group, of shared common values, and of knowing each other. People don't just go to community churches; they see themselves as belonging there. At a time when American society appears to be fragmenting, the community churches offer cohesion.
It is important to make this connection with the changing face of America. In his much-cited article "The Age of Social Transformation," published in the November 1994 Atlantic Monthly, management guru Peter Drucker pointed out that traditional communities of family, village, and parish have practically disappeared.
"Their place has largely been taken by the new unit of social integration, the organization," Drucker wrote. "Where community was fate, organization is voluntary membership." In the old days, community was defined by where you lived. It was part of the inherited order of things, something that you were born into. Now, it has to be created—and the agency that creates this community is increasingly the voluntary organization. Christian churches are strategically placed to create and foster community. The community churches have proved especially effective in this role, and have grown immensely in consequence.
But what of atheism? The former Soviet Union realized the importance of creating a sense of community. Having eliminated religion from the public life of the nation, Soviet planners recognized the importance of creating rituals and events, which fostered social cohesion and a sense of identity....The Soviets devised additional rituals as counterparts to the Christian rites of baptism and confirmation—for example, the "family event" to mark the birth of a new child, or the ceremony to mark admission to the Communist Party.
The nearest thing in the West to this Soviet model is found in Canada, which seems to think that a sense of community identity can only be created by eliminating any religious presence in the public arena. In the United States, atheism spawns organizations; it does not create community... (emphasis mine.)
Tomorrow I'll offer some reflections on the "ideal church" and will also return to the ongoing lenten series of "Communal Spiritual Disciplines" with an excerpt from my sermon on "The Spiritual Discipline of Sitting Under."