“God Help the Jobless”

The Economist reports that some churches in the US — especially Evangelical congregations which tout “the prosperity gospel” — are offering workshops and support groups for the unemployed:

Although gaining new members would be an obvious benefit for the churches, those involved say it is not the primary goal. “We’re here to provide spiritual support and encouragement at a time when people can experience feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness,” says Cindy Hall, a minister at the 1,000-member First Baptist Church in Sanford, North Carolina, which started a support group for its jobless congregants last July.

In my anthropology of religion class, I begin by asking students: Why is religious belief nearly universal among humans?  The majority provide a functional answer: Because it provides psychological comfort in times of need, and gives people a sense of meaning.

During the course of the semester, we attempt to locate the origins of religion in deep time and explore all the evolutionary theories regarding religion.  We also spend a good deal of time examining the supernatural beliefs of hunter-gatherers, and how those were transformed as societies became more complex.  Psychological explanations for religion (i.e., providing support when people experience “feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness”) do not figure prominently in these inquiries.

Religions oriented primarily around psychological comfort and meaning do not appear until the Axial Age, at a time when increasing urbanization, stratification, and specialization had fundamentally altered the way people experience their lives.  This is when we first begin to  see the anomie and alienation which characterizes much of life in large-scale societies.

At the end of the semester, I ask the same question:  What accounts for religion?  Surprisingly, many students continue to insist that religion is primarily functional and is a palliative for anything that ails you.  They are not, in other words, buying evolutionary, economic, social, or power based theories of religion.

What accounts for their continued insistence that religion is about comfort and meaning?  Although I cannot be sure, I suspect it has something to do with the long shadows cast by Freud and Marx.

Did you like this? Share it: