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Community engagement & the gap left by religious connection

Exploring how communities can engage in the 21st century

Community engagement is as important now as it has ever been. We’ve entered a world where we are becoming increasingly isolated and alienated from each other. Doom and gloom and more are infesting the fabric of our daily lives, and one way to help combat this is through social connections.

The value of engaging with a community, engaging a community, having a community that engages and a community that helps individuals engage is something invaluable and increasingly scarce.

The inspiration for this piece’s concept came from a paragraph in Rory Sutherland’s book Alchemy (2019). Where he discusses how religion and its physical representations would offer a communal safety net to those in its spiritual and physical spheres of influence. And how the disinterest in religion has also led to a decay of this safety net.

Now, this isn’t a piece promoting the need for becoming religious, nor is it a piece pushing those to denounce religion. I am not religious, at least not in the sense that I believe in some omnipotent being(s). This piece does also not condone or promote zealotry either, which helps destroy communities. The fanatical aspect of religion that has allowed for crusades, jihads, religious hate, and exclusion is part of the reason that many people have left religion behind, and likely for good reason.

No, what this piece wants to explore is the abstract idea of a (sometimes spiritual) system and a physical locus that allowed for individual engagement and communal engagement, and with each other.  It is about having a location for the ‘community’, both in the mind and in the external world, and the extension of this into the digital 21st-century world.

The temple locus

In ages past, the central locus of the community was around a religious building, let’s call it the temple. Dependent on culture and region, this would be a church, synagogue, mosque, mandir, stupa, pagoda, and so on. The religion associated with the temple was the vehicle that facilitated the communal cohesion of those around it. It was something everyone had in common and could share and talk about.

The building itself was a place where the community could meet regularly and form a network. They could gather whenever they wanted or at prearranged times and share. The construct of the belief and the physical space allowed people to engage with each other, and it formed a basis for interaction, but it could often grow into further shared interests.

The unfortunate consequence of the disinterest in religion is a general disinterest in the community and communal engagement. This has led to a lack of support for each other and a rise in negative interactions. Just take online toxicity as an example. Much of what communal engagement has become has an ulterior motive: monetary, ideological, populism etc.

This disinterest has also had the outcome that people no longer gather at a central location to interact. People still gather at locations, but the groups are far smaller and, in some cases, do not allow for varied interaction. Granted that the image of a church filled with middle-class white people also does not evoke variation. But imagine if a temple was fashionable in today’s modern world, and it didn’t discriminate; the variation of life, culture, perspective, and ethnicity would be amazing. 

The modern-day temple of engagement

Such a temple could exist, or in some cases it does. The internet currently offers a fantastic way for everyone to remain in their echo chamber. But there is a method and a place where a modern-day version of the temple can be created.

It doesn’t require religion as a vehicle, though it can be spiritual if required. It also does not need to be physical, but it can be if required. It can be solely digital as well. Religion only offered a shared interest to connect with. The modern temple exists around shared interests that engage the community.

Many of these places already exist, particularly in what many now call the ‘metaverse’. I’m referring to online games, and forums, where groups, clans and guilds exist. Facebook groups and subreddits, to name a few, allow for positive communal interactions as well, beyond their favoured echo-chamber status.

The locus of the temple in the modern world is already established, these communities have formed or are forming in organic ways all around us. But to leverage their positiveness in potentia when it comes to engagement, we all need to make sure that these communities do offer certain valuable features.

What the temple of old offered for many is not only a place to connect, but it offered a place of stability, a network of valuable friends, a support network, education and very often a place for mental health support. Those struggling would be taken in by the community and temple and supported until they could deal with the world again. Those who came from a broken life or had fallen on hard times would receive the support they needed from the temple community.

The influence of such an organism that engages both an individual and a group is truly compelling. To have such a community around you, your inner circle, or your organisation with be a source of wealth without compare.

Building a temple

But how do you build such a ‘temple’? Well, it can’t be forced, people don’t like to be told what to join or believe or do. If you or your organisation wish to have such a community that can be engaged, it will need to be done with a soft and always present guiding hand.

In essence, you need only follow the above points as a guideline when helping a community to form. If it offers support and is understanding of everyone, regardless of culture, background, ethnicity, and current position in life then people will naturally join. If the community is inclusive and helps educate its members, then its growth will be constant and organic.

Rebuilding the sense of a community starts with you, with everyone. It’s down to leaders, influencers, and organisations that so many people follow. And yes, there is the dark side where those leading the community do not have altruistic intentions. But the hope is that given the choice, someone may choose an inclusive community over an exclusive one. Especially if the inclusive one speaks to their shared interests.

Remember though, for effective engagement in a community, you will need to offer different forms or levels of engagement. Not everyone wishes or wants to jump into the deep end and be fully engaged with everyone and everything. Some people require a more casual entry point, which will lead them to hopefully want greater levels of engagement. In the end, these people may end up being your greatest and most loyal members.

Final thoughts

Community engagement may have had its roots in religion, but not everyone wishes for an external focal point of a supernatural being to facilitate that communal feeling.

At the end of the day, the loss of a supportive community is a greater disadvantage to society than the loss of a religious myth-making structure. I’m not disparaging what religion can offer, the spiritual side does offer a guiding framework that allows a great many people to live better lives. There is value in this as many people still do find meaning in it. I’m simply not in favour of the myth-making apparatus that leads to fanaticism and zealous insanity that it inspires in some.

To help each other and to improve audience engagement in society and in general, consider building your communities to be supportive environments. To borrow a term from Seth Godin, build caring Tribes that can help make the world a better place. People are more likely to follow their peers than large corporations when enacting real change.

And perhaps with this, we can move away from the negative echo chamber that much of social (media) life has become nowadays, to a more encouraging community that we all wish to engage with.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æ, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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