Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.
The first reading is from the book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, by sociologist Carolyn Chen (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022, p. 209). In this book, Chen shows how work has become religion in Silicon Valley, and she documents how destructive the worship of work can be. She then says:
“How do we break the theocracy of work? The late writer David Foster Wallace observed, ‘In the day-to-day trenches of adult life there is actually no such thing as atheism. Everybody worship. The only choice is what we get to worship.’ We can stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these ‘magnets’ that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend out collective energy.”
The second reading comes from Rabbi Howard I Bogot, from his 1979 essay “Why Jewishness?” in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (vol. 56, no. 1, 1979, p. 108).
“For many years I have carried with me an Emerson-like quote which reads as follows: ‘The gods will write their names on our faces, be sure of that; and man will worship something, have no doubt of that either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret, in the deep recesses of his heart but it will out. That which dominates his imagination and his thought will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.’”
Sermon: “Three hundred and One”
On Tuesday, December 13, First Parish will celebrate its three hundred and first birthday. This past fall, I’ve given a few sermons looking back at the past three hundred years. So today, just before the end of our three hundredth birthday year, I thought I’d give a sermon about the future.
I am not, however, going to try to predict what the next three hundred years will hold for our congregation. I’m willing to try to look ahead for a dozen years, or at most for twenty years — in other words, look ahead for another generation. Think of the youngest child in our Sunday school, and think ahead to when that child heads off to college or to a job: what will First Parish look like then? I’m not willing to look ahead for the next three hundred years, but I’m willing to try one generation.
But even trying to look ahead one generation is difficult. We are in the midst of a major change in American religion. When I started out working in Unitarian Universalist congregations, back in 1994, we could feel pretty confident that in 2014 our congregations would look much like they did in 1994. During the teens, though, we started seeing an increasing number of people who had no religious affiliation at all. Sociologists began to call these people the “Nones,” as in when you asked them what their religion was, they’d respond, “None.”
In the past decade and a half, the number of Nones in America has just kept increasing. Many people assume this is a trend towards increasing secularization, but I don’t think that’s a good assumption. Surveys show that a large percentage of Americans continue to believe in God or in some higher power. (1) It’s not that religious belief is going away; rather, it’s a matter of people not affiliating with religious organizations.
This is partly due to another demographic trend. Since the 1960s, Americans have been disengaging with all forms of community and organizations. Political scientist Robert Putnam popularized this idea back in the year 2000 in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (2) Putnam blamed much of the disengagement on individualized entertainment that was first delivered through television, and later through the internet. Think about it this way: on Sunday morning, it’s easier to stay home and look at NetFlix or TikTok than it is to drive to Cohasset center, find parking, and walk over to this Meeting House. Maybe the quality of interaction is better here in the Meeting House than what you’ll find on TikTok, but for many people the convenience and the ability to individualize one’s interaction makes up for the lower quality of interaction.
Interestingly, right after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the authors Thomas E. Mann, Norm Ornstein and E. J. Dionne, pointed out that many people “rallied to [Donald Trump] out of a yearning for forms of community and solidarity that they sense have been lost.” (3) I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Whether you agree or disagree with Donald Trump’s politics, there is no doubt he was adept at bringing a crowd of his supporters together, making them feel a part of something larger than themselves. In fact, his rallies look to me more like religious revivals than political rallies. Nor is it only Republican candidates who create that feeling: recently, we’ve seen how Raphael Warnock uses that feeling of a religious revival to rally people to vote for him.
Indeed, both the Republican party and the Democratic party have begun to resemble religions. Each party has doctrines and dogmas that they promote; and they are eager to denigrate the doctrines and dogmas of the other religion — sorry, of the other party. Each party has a mythological dimension, myths that they tell about heroic figures. There are rituals specific to each group, including things like chanting and pilgrimages. Adherents of each party can have strong emotional experiences, akin to traditional religious experiences like praying or worshipping in a church. There’s even material culture associated with each party, objects that take on almost religious significance, like MAGA hats or Barack Obama posters. All this looks a lot like religion to me. (4)
But it’s not just political parties that have taken on religious dimensions. Other forms of social interaction are also taking the place of traditional religious congregations. Think about sports events. The World Cup, with the special fan clothing, the fans making long pilgrimages to a distant land, the chanting and sense of identity — this all looks like religion. Or, closer to home, as someone who grew up in the Boston area, I can tell you that around here, baseball often feels like a religion. I found it difficult to explain to people in California how belonging to Red Sox nation was more like a religious affiliation than simply rooting for the home team. I’m told Red Sox fans are quite similar in this regard to Green Bay Packers fans. So you can see that for the true believers, sports looks like religion to outsiders, and from the inside, to true believers, sports feels like religion. (5)
And then there’s work. Over the past few years, sociologist Carolyn Chen of the University of California at Berkeley has focused her research on Silicon Valley workers. She finds that these workers “point to their jobs and careers” when they are asked “what brings meaning to their lives.” That’s the ultimate purpose of religion, isn’t it? — to help us bring meaning into our lives. Instead of turning to sports or politics, many Silicon Valley workers are finding the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives through their work.
I could go on, and tell you about other social and cultural phenomena look a lot like religion — celebrity worship, humanistic psychology, network Christianity, yoga, and so on. But you get the point. Religion is taking on new forms. No longer is religion confined to local churches and synagogues. Religion can no longer be neatly categorized into denominations and world religions. American religion now includes sports, and politics, and work.
So where does that leave First Parish? How can we compete with a Raphael Warnock rally, or a Donald Trump rally? How can we compete with Red Sox baseball, or with downhill skiing? How can we compete with the jobs of knowledge workers? What we can do is we can offer an alternative.
For there’s a problem with sports, politics, or work as religion. Each of these things asks our devotion, not for our own sake, but for the sake of another. Donald Trump and Raphael Warnock ask us to participate in the religious rituals of their political rallies, not to make us better people, but so that they can win an election. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a political candidate, there’s nothing wrong with helping someone get elected. But when our support of them starts looking like religion — when we start getting our personal meaning and fulfillment out of it — then someone else is using our fulfillment to meet their own ends and goals.
Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with sports. I sometimes worship at the altar of the Red Sox, and will happily tell you about the time I got seats four rows back from the visitor’s dugout when the legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was pitching against the New York Yankees. But we have to remember that professional sports is a business. If when I get my personal meaning and fulfillment in life by boosting someone else’s profit, I’m no longer an end in myself; someone else is using me as a means to their own ends.
Perhaps most troubling to me is when knowledge workers find their entire life’s meaning in their jobs. When you work for a corporation, you are a means to an end. You may get something out of your job, but the ultimate end of your job is to create profits for the company. As important as your work may be, you are more than your job. To be fully human is to be an end in yourself.
In the second reading this morning, Rabbi Howard Bogot talks about a quote he carried around with him for many years, a quote from an anonymous twentieth century source. That anonymous but wise person pointed out that those things which dominate our imaginations and our thoughts have a tendency to determine the course of our lives and our characters. Therefore, concludes this wise anonymous source, “it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
This anonymous quote helps us understand the big change in American religion that’s going on right now. People are leaving the old religious organizations, the churches and the synagogues — leaving the traditional religious groups like denominations. But that doesn’t mean that religion is going away; religion is simply taking new forms.
Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with religion taking on new forms. But there is problem with some of these new forms of religion: they have the capacity to tear our society apart. When politics becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of political rallies. In a more extreme, more toxic form, it can turn into something like Christian militias and Christian nationalism. And Christian nationalism has gotten to the point where one proponent is calling for the United States to be governed by a Christian Taliban. (6) Thus, in an extreme form, politics as religion can wind up being dangerous to democracy.
When work becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of someone absolutely loving their job, so much so that they’re willing to work more than 80 hours a week and sleep on a couch at their workplace. In an extreme form, as in Silicon Valley where workers are expected to spend most of their lives at work, sociologist Carolyn Chen has documented the the destructive side effects of excessive devotion to jobs: destruction of families, destruction of civic organizations, and disinvestment in public government. Thus, in its extreme form, work as religion can become dangerous to our society. (7)
As I gaze into my crystal ball and try to catch sight of what next ten or twenty years will look like here at First Parish, I spend a lot of time thinking about this big change in American religion. How should we here in First Parish respond to this drift away from organized religion?
First of all, our kind of religion is no longer the norm. We cannot automatically assume that when someone walks into our Meeting House, they will know what we’re doing, what’s going on here. We now have to explain what organized religion is like, what it does. We now have to explain that religious congregations like First Parish are civic organizations, places where we join together both to help ourselves and our families, and to make our communities stronger. Religious congregations like First Parish are cornerstones of democracy. Religious congregations like First Parish exist, not for the sake of the congregation, but for the sake of each person in the congregation. We come here, not to profit someone else, but to profit ourselves.
We used to spend a lot of time explaining to newcomers what we believed. We would tell people that we didn’t have a creed or a dogma, that we search together for truth and goodness. In the past, that was how we differentiated ourselves from other religious congregations. But now, I’ve been finding newcomers are more interested in learning what it is that we do. When I try to explain what it is that we do here at First Parish, a few things come immediately to mind.
First of all, each week in our worship services, we affirm our highest values. We recall ourselves to our deepest humanity. We strengthen ourselves for the week ahead.
Next, we are the leaders of our congregation. While we do have paid staff, leadership is shared among all who are part of our community. We all make the decisions together, we all staff the committees, we are the volunteers.
Next, we join together to make the world a better place. We support charitable causes, we volunteer together, we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
Perhaps most importantly, we raise the next generation to become moral, joyful, humane people. And this is yet another way in which we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
As you can see, what we do is quite different from what the new forms of religion do. Again, the new forms of religion — work and politics and sports and so on — are mostly done for someone else’s profit. No one is making a profit from what we do here in First Parish. What we do benefits each one of us, and all of us collectively. What we do benefits the wider community, and ultimately the whole world.
In addition to telling people what we believe and showing them what it is that we do, there’s another way we should be explaining ourselves to curious newcomers. We need to show people that we have a different way of being in the world. Our kind of being is not a selfish kind of being. Our kind of being is being-with-others. As an old prophet once put it, we strive to love our neighbors as we love our selves. (8) Sometimes I like to call this inter-being, or or sometime we might use the phrase “the interdependent web of all life.” When others sense within us this love for neighbor and love for self, they may find that they want to be a part of this community. They may want to feel part of the interdependent web of life.
When I look ahead to the next ten or twenty years at First Parish, this is what I hope we put at the center of our community: loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Or if you prefer, living as if the interdependent web of life truly mattered. These are the permanent center of our religious community. And if we can keep these at our center, if we can show in our lives and in our being that these are of greatest importance to us, we will continue to be a force for good in the next ten years, in the next twenty years, indeed for the next three hundred years of our existence.
(1) See e.g., Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise,” 9 October 2012, www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ accessed 10 December 2022.
(2) Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
(3) E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018).
(4) To help define define religion, I’m using Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion from his book Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998). Smart’s seven dimensions of religion are: Ritual; Narrative and Mythic; Experiential and emotional; Social and Institutional; Ethical and legal; Doctrinal and philosophical; Material (i.e., objects that symbolize the sacred). According to Smart, different religions emphasize different dimensions of the sacred.
(5) There is a great deal of scholarly writing about sport as religion. For just one example, the book From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion (Mercer University Press, 2001), ed. Joseph L. Price, contains a collection of essays on this topic, with titles like “The Final Four as Final Judgement,” “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” and “The Pitcher’s Mound as Cosmic Mountain.”
(6) Christian nationalist Nick Fuentes has called for this, according to “Who Is Trump’s Dinner Companion, Nick Fuentes?,” Religion News Service, 27 November 2022, religionnews.com/2022/11/27/who-is-trump-and-kanyes-dinner-companion-nick-fuentes/ accessed10 December 2022.
(7) For more about the destructive side effects of work as religion, see the final chapter of Chen’s book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022).
(8) Jesus of Nazareth, as reported in the Gospel according to Mark, 12:31.