One of the most…memorable…experiences that I had in My First 52 Weeks of My 52 Weeks of Worship Project was during Week 24 at the Mountain of Fire And Miracles in Surulere, a community in Lagos, Nigeria. As I share in my book:
“The website for their international headquarters describes the church as:“… a full gospel ministry devoted to the Revival of Apostolic Signs, Holy Ghost fireworks, and the unlimited demonstration of the power of God to deliver to the uttermost.” The website for the Chicago-based branch of the same church describes the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries as “the Domain of total deliverance and Heaven Shaking Prayers.”
And yes, it was as intense as that description sounds.
I was reminded of this worship experience when I read the Huffington Post Article titled, “Religion Can’t Compete With Entertainment.” In the article the author, Nigel Barber shares that, “Considered as a product, organized religion appears to have the primary function of emotion-focused coping. To be more specific, religion helps people cope with anxiety.” He goes on to say that, “Anxiety-packed situations also evoke a religious response. Religious people pray when their flight encounters a bad patch of turbulence. Natural disasters raise the religious temperature of the populations affected. That may be why virtually everyone is religious in countries where living conditions are difficult ….” He references, ironically, Sub-Saharan Africa and the fact that in the countries in that area of the world, “It is hardly surprising that the overwhelming majority are highly religious.”
I noted something similar in my experience in Nigeria- considering the intensity of the hours-long service, and the highly energetic prayers that characterized the service I attended, and saying:
These worshippers were not just about phoning it in. There was no way that these people could pray these prayers unless there was a deep belief and conviction regarding what they needed to do about what was going on in the world.
When the pastor said, “It is these prayers that affect the lives of Nigerians all over the world,” who was I to really debate that?
When life is hard, are these types of energetic prayers required?
So, i understand what Mr. Barber is saying in his article. I am not saying that I don’t pray when I am anxious, or stressed, or otherwise feel like life is kicking me in the face. On the contrary, I do. But, being someone who has a faith practice and tradition that is central to who I am, and having spent so much time talking to and learning from others who feel the same about their own religious practices – I would venture to say that he goes too far in saying that the only purpose – or even the primary purpose – of religion is to reduce anxiety, or to serve as a “security blanket.”
It is true that often, it is a difficult time in one’s life – whether that be a rough flight, or a rough year, or a total life meltdown, that inspires one to take the time to take a religious or spiritual journey – to immerse oneself in their own faith tradition, or try to find one that can help with the pain or the healing process. When life is hard, and one needs answers – looking to God, however they perceive God to be, can be the first stop.
But I disagree that, once that same person feels better, the religious practices and community that may have helped them get to that better place become irrelevant. On the contrary, those very practices, and the members of those communities that help a person get through the darkest times of their life often become the anchor of a more productive and hopeful existence.Barber lists many things – sports, entertainment, video games, psychotherapy, and even anti-anxiety drugs, that can serve as “competition” for religion – in that they can make you feel just as good about a bad situation (or life in general) as religion, or meditation, or worship.
That seems overly simplistic to me.
I don’t think it is a zero sum game. I enjoy sports and entertainment. I have no problem saying you should get the help that you need if you find yourself in a situation where you need professional help. Whether that includes a psychotherapists or anti-anxiety drugs is a matter for you and your medical team to decide.
But, I think Barber underestimates the power of doing the hard work to determine what your religious and spiritual beliefs are. He devalues the lessons one can learn from determining what source of your strength is and then making that source the center of your being, rather than spending your life trying to distract yourself from digging into life by using various “feel-good products”. There might be many things competing for your attention, and encouraging you not to take the time to do that work. But that doesn’t mean the work is not worth it.
As Barber contemplates the future of religion, he states, “As one looks around the modern world, it seems obvious that religion is losing out in the competition with rival feel-good products.”
That does not appear to be obvious to me. What do you think?