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On what binds society when religion fails

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The other day, two well-meaning old ladies approached and invited me to their church meetings; I politely declined. They had sought me out precisely because I was Chinese and spoke Mandarin, but even with the wealth of culture that we shared, they felt the need to create another bond – the bond of religion.

Religion is powerful; it creates bonds and webs stronger than spider silk. Religion has spurred the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Pilgrims’ journey and colonization of the United States. Religion has motivated the masses to build beautiful monuments and gathering places dedicated to their beliefs, and religion has made it possible for people in a community to feel that they belong to a larger one that transcends even time.

It certainly is comforting to know that one can go wherever and seek out those who share the same beliefs and the same faith in the same god or gods and that one always has the ability to join and merge back into their community. Religion has certainly played a part in creating these global communities, but what happens when religion is no longer there?

Religion will certainly never disappear, but in the United States at the very least, its influence is declining. This is especially noticeable in the younger generations; many who were raised in religion self-identified as agnostic or atheist later in life. The rates of conversions to those who leave is roughly the same in some but not all sects.

This leaves us with one very basic question: What will hold society together when religion is no longer there to do that?

One can quite clearly – and rightly – point to culture. Language, food, clothing, customs – these are all things that can and will bond us to each other.

But what about bonding between communities? Some cultures share little in common, and religion used to serve as the bridge. Language only works with those who have an interest in certain cultures – and even then, there are distinctions made between native speakers and non-native speakers.

One could point to similar goals. Immigrants often formed their own communities, but those communities also featured race and perhaps the inherent prejudices built into that culture itself. There could be generational hatred, or an unwillingness to open up to foreign ideas.

The easiest answer would then be to ensure that everyone has the same culture, to truly ensure a homogenized melting pot. America wouldn’t be a melting pot of greens and blues and purples. Rather, we would all become a sort of grayish blob, highly uninteresting to be a part of or to see. What makes us interesting is also what makes us different. So what can we do to ensure bonding while still retaining individuality?

Another solution is to gravitate toward some figure. It is quite possible to form a community around these things, be it celebrity, K-Pop star, political figure or an ideal. But in many cases, people gravitate toward one thing and then it becomes their idol. I know that I love my Wi-Fi connection and my laptop; others enjoy BTS or proudly wear Kanye’s face on their shirts. We gather around powerful figures like moths to a flame. Religion used to provide that figure. There are many more now.

I suppose there is no easy answer to this question: What holds society together if religion no longer can? But I can guess that the answer is a reality in which we gather around something similarly powerful because most of us believe in something. Otherwise, we might just fracture and fall back into the societies we were before religion appeared.

 

Contact Angela Zhao at angezhao ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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