Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Faith and Coercion

My recent musings about voluntarism lead me, inevitably, to think about the role of coercion and social pressure in religion.

As in anything that involves human beings, participation in religious communities is often something folks do because they've been made to do it. This goes well beyond the "Oh Yes You ARE Going to Church Today, Young Man" hectoring that occurs nearly every Sunday morning in every Christian family that has a tweener.

Coercion to participate in religious life goes far deeper than mom threatening to take away your screen time. For many, it has deep sociological and theological roots.

Sociologically, that coercion occurs in communities that have religious homogeneity. If you're in certain portions of the American South, you just go to church. It's what people do. If you don't, there are significant social judgments made, and significant pressures applied. It's not quite the same in practice as the pressure to be a Shiite in Iran, but the essential principle is the same. You are faithful because you will be culturally penalized if you aren't.

The same can be true in microcosm within a faith community. If those who are part of your immediate circle all hew to a particular creed, that creed can easily be conflated with the bonds of friendship and family. If you don't believe, then, honey, you are so getting cut off. If you question or resist, we won't like you any more! No more Ski Trips for Little Ms. Questions!

Theologically, religion can be coerced through the implicit and explicit threat of eternal existential narstiness to be inflicted upon the heretic and infidel. For those with a spiritual bent, this can be a terrifying thing. One's whole life can be woven up wracked with fear at the many ways you may not be adequate, and the fires of Hades are brought out again and again like a damnation sorority paddle, which is then applied vigorously to the tushies of backsliders. Better do what Pastor says, sinner.

That theology, though, is the theology of the Law. It's just a way of enforcing compliance, and as such, it's a form of worldly power. Legal structures stand on the foundation of the coercive power that underlies them. They draw their power from the knowledge that they will be enforced, and that failure to comply with them will result in unpleasantness. But even though it is practiced by fundamentalists and condemned by atheists, coercive theology is not meaningfully Christian.

We are, after all, no longer under the sway of the Law. The next time you hear someone going on about believing so you don't have to dip your sorry behind in the Lake of Fire, it's helpful to remember that this really ain't the point of the Gospel.