A while back, I read a fascinating article in Tricycle Magazine about religious communities in the US. The article talks about how religious communities are changing in America so that instead of social “communities” they are becoming “lifestyle enclaves”.
The difference between the two is important. As Professor Strand explains, in a traditional social community people in the group might come from different backgrounds, but they have something in common (religion, ethnicity, neighborhood, etc) that brings them together, and the religion helps keep them together during good times and bad. So, he uses the example of old ladies who bake casseroles1 for a family where someone has died. The emphasis is on community which means that they help each other out. This was my experience at a certain Japanese-American (日系, nikkei) Jodo Shinshu temple here in Seattle that my family and I attended for years. I was impressed how people worked together to keep the temple running for 100+ years.
The newer “lifestyle enclave” is more like “shopping for a religion”. You’re concerned about the religion first, and the community second. This has an advantage because you can find people who think and act like you, but the disadvantage is that there’s no real sense of community because the religion is the only thing bringing people together. People are there first and foremost to learn something or maybe to get answers for some questions. Because they’re “shopping”, they’re concerned with their own needs first. You’re not there because of the other people. It gives you a greater sense of freedom because you can pick and choose what temple or what group you want to attend, but you also don’t feel close as to anybody. When I visited a certain Buddhist “meditation centre” in Ireland,2 and some temples in the US, this is feeling I got. People were polite and friendly, but not really connected. Usually, it felt like a room of individuals, not a community.
Anyhow, the article is a good read. I don’t really have a solution myself. In fact, I am just as guilty of “shopping” for religion too. I believe that this change is a natural part of the modern countries experience, not just in religion, but it is kind of sad to see genuine communities going away. I think we’re now struggling to find a good replacement.
P.S. I believe this same trend is happening in Japan too based on my limited experience: older “communities” are being replaced with newer “enclaves”, so it’s not just the US and Western countries. It’s a problem of modern life: people can take care of themselves more easily, so they don’t need to depend on one another as much.
1 Funny story, but my wife, who is from Japan, never had them since Japanese food is different. Howeer, one of her favorite foods in American culture is a green-bean casserole, which is something I never liked. I still don’t really like them.
2 I thought I wrote a post about it, but I can’t find it anymore. I might have removed it, or I chose not to write about it, as the experience wasn’t very positive.