We don’t care

In both the United States and Turkey, the two countries I can observe most closely, the strength of conservative religious movements has a lot to do with how the religious are better at organizing care-giving and social solidarity compared to more secular people.

In the US, much care-giving is linked to churches. From pastoral visits to the sick to church members pitching together to help a recently unemployed member, especially if you’re relatively poor or in reduced circumstances, churches are often the best help you can count upon. In the US, churches are our social safety net. Christian volunteerism is our exception to possessive individualism. We do not believe citizens owe anything to each other as fellow citizens, but we help out others within and through our congregations. Even if you want more middle-class versions of care-giving or social solidarity, such as a support system for college students, it will be religious organizations that attempt to meet the need. The largest student organizations on our campuses are church-affiliated. We are ruthless competitors in the secular public realm (which is little but the marketplace) but caring human beings in a religious environment.

Turkey is much the same. The public realm consists of a dog-eat-dog marketplace and its extension in government, which is naturally wholly corrupt. Care takes place in the context of ethnic, regional, but especially religious solidarity. Especially if you’re poor, religious involvement is critical to your chances to get support beyond an extended family network. There is little in the way of unions or other secular organizations that can support mutual aid. And it is no surprise that middle class and upwardly-mobile needs for care and support are also met by religious groups. College students, for example, if involved with religious orders, can count on decent housing, tutoring help, and a supportive social environment. Indeed, there are religious groups that pay special attention to recruiting needy students by caring for their needs. Secular public alternatives, when they exist, are usually starkly inferior. After all, citizens are on their own as citizens, but as believers, they have access to care.

If we care about secularism as a real-life political option—not some abstract legal deliverance of liberal political philosophy—we have to think about how to care for each other without depending on the kind of thick, suffocating social connections modeled on congregations. It used to be that the political left was deeply concerned about just such matters. In these postmodern times, I am not so sure anymore. We may be very liberal, and firmly committed to the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, by and large, we just don’t care.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00565212411446092552 smijer

    Very well put… I try to work on a solution to this… I bring what I care about to a UU church community… But we've got to re-establish "kinship" with one another outside the lines of doctrine and cultural purity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    Indeed, well-put. The religious never have had, and shouldn't be given, a monopoly on communal ties. . .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02494141255401096538 uzza

    Well, this particular atheist's poor and reduced circumstances made me eligible for secular and govt. programs that paid for maybe a hundred thousand dollars worth of cancer treatments.
    Being still alive makes it kind of hard for me to agree with your post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis wrote: “… the religious are better at organizing care-giving and social solidarity compared to more secular people.

    By “secular people” I suppose you mean “non-religious people”. After all secularism is the idea that government and religion should be separate, so an individual (but not a society) can be both secular and religious.

    In regard to the fact you mention above, I wonder how you explain it. Do you think this fact comes about because a religious worldview tends to make people more caring, or that it comes about because religious organizations use care as a means to become stronger?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06228052543574335663 geoih

    Quote from uzza: "… and govt. programs that paid for maybe a hundred thousand dollars worth of …"

    Here's your first problem. I already gave at the office. Maybe if I wasn't the victim of so much coerced compassion, I might be more interested in doing something voluntary.

    When the government takes it's gun out of my face and it's hand out of my wallet, then we can talk.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12642092698398859527 Joshua Blanchard

    "If we care about secularism as a real-life political option…"

    It would be particularly disturbing if the motivator for secular ethics became making the movement more attractive to outsiders.

    The phenomena you describe in your post, plus the political justification for helping the disadvantaged at the end, will confirm what many Christian apologists think about the religious foundations of ethics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02494141255401096538 uzza

    geoih, you're missing the point. My case is a counter example to the post's claim that secular organizations do not care for people. When my savings ran out the cancer center continued treatments, plus I became eligible for medicaid. Both these organizations, one private, one not, are secular.

    Problems you might have with how these orgs handle their funding is a separate issue. Thank you though, for any contribution you may have made to the Medicaid half of it.

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