Saturday, August 13, 2011

Religion: Not the Opiate of the Masses After All

Over at Religion Dispatches, Elizabeth Drescher makes a number of insightful points in an article on the recent British riots. Following is an excerpt.

. . . [R]eligious belief and participation has a strong correlation to self-reported feelings of happiness and well-being. However, new research by Ed Diener and colleagues on Gallup data from 2005 to 2009 shows that the correlation between religion and happiness is amplified by economic misery, with “People living in nations or states with more difficult circumstances... substantially more likely to be religious.” In circumstances of prosperity and security, religiosity has a negligible impact on perceived happiness.

That is, religion does seem to turn out to the opiate of the masses.

But wait: Diener’s research also indicates that the dominant religious orientation of a culture pressures subcultures into conformance despite their less happy circumstances. In Western societies like Britain and the United States, the affluence of the powerful few, uninterested with religion as they happily are, shapes the norms of religious participation for the society as a whole. The effect is to minimize the role of religion as a social balm. That is, the United Kingdom, among the ten least religious nations in Diener’s study, is pretty much all out of opiates. Those who have don’t need them for happiness, so they’re off the market for everyone else.

So, too, with sports teams, which have been sources of identity, pride, and social connection for the working classes in generations past. While the jury is out on whether playing or watching sports encourages aggression or releases it, it’s clear that, as social constructions, sports organize such feelings, bringing cohesion to an otherwise voiceless, fragmented mass. One hardly hopes to see more of the sort of melee that that broke out among rival West Midland fans in 2010, loosing England its bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

Nonetheless, responses to such events that ignore the underlying issues they express—that would see soccer-related violence, like the uprisings this week, simply as ferociously bad manners that can be corrected by cutting off social media access—invite more of the same. Absent religious institutions, soccer grounds, or other outlets as sites for organized repression and/or expression of the powerlessness and hopelessness that characterizes youth culture in places that simmer like East London all over the economically floundering developed world, more such outrage is always just one blind, stupid authoritarian action away.

Of course, however well they may or may not have worked in the past, institutionalized structures for venting or swallowing underclass rage are not the answer. One wishes that some productive combination of government attention and grassroots organization might allow things like education, opportunity, and economic equity to transform so much misdirected pain and anger into lives of meaning and purpose.

To read Drescher's article, "London Calling: 'Our Great War is a Spiritual War'", in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Summer Round-Up (2011)

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