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Editorial: Can the benefit of a shared God be recreated for the wider community, without closing the doors on those who don’t believe?

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Perhaps it is time to reconsider the architecture of faith

In dark times, a prayer rises in my throat like a  scream – fervent, unanswerable. Religion is there, offering to lance guilt-filled pustules with forgiveness and ply the meaningless nothingness with tea and sympathy.

But I find it easier to display my allegiance to the church of Apple than wear a cross these days. It’s not that I don’t have faith; it’s formal religion that’s hard to swallow. With so much being done in the name of this or that, God comes with much sociopolitical baggage.

But the gnawing persists for the sacred to make sense of inner and outer churn; to seek an experience of the sublime and its vertiginous discombobulation – of death and infinite interconnectedness; the joy of ‘we are stardust’, children’s children and grains of sand, and whether or not it is unfolding as it should. Solitary enlightenment is proffered in a mindfulness app or yoga class, advertised as retail therapy or in a poster for a Thai holiday. We no longer require the construction of Modernist concrete temples – we’ve got Therme Vals.

‘The religious establishment has been slow to embrace social networking, but solitary enlightenment is being provided via Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube’

This conflation of leisure, consumerism and spirituality has given us greater choice in self-help than brimstone and salvation from the preacher man, but has not managed to fill the hollow inside. We are baffled when teenagers seek out Daesh – but when the French teen who narrowly escaped indoctrination spoke to CNN, it was not enlightenment she was after but fellowship via smartphone: ‘I received loads of messages from them … I really felt like I was loved, even more than by my own family … They say the only ones who love you are your brothers and sisters in Islam. Then, when things deteriorate with your family, you turn to them instead … I’m afraid that one day I’ll feel lonely and I’ll fall into the trap again.’

With technology fuelling the loneliness epidemic among the young, and increased migration and paranoia segregating the city, it is the community cohesion offered by sacred spaces that we need most. The critical function of a religious building today, from the makeshift church in ‘the Jungle’ migrant camp in Calais to the Christchurch cardboard chapel, is not to offer heady incense and a shaft of light, but a meeting place – for networking, support, comfort and service.

The increased privatisation of public space has left little room for communities to self-organise. With big government withdrawing help for those who need it most, faith can unite a group under a shared ethos and common values. Religious buildings provide functional rooms for rituals that bind us together, alongside infrastructure for committees that can make a difference – from soup kitchens, to visiting the elderly, AA meetings and sharing cleaning duties. This useful social subset – a village within a village –is both exclusive and inclusive; the migrant, homeless, old and young are brought into the fold from birth to death without charge or expectation. The religious devotion itself is secondary to the power of what is enabled, which is in fact a corporation – one body – crowdfunded, linked in, not for profit and with a mandate to do good.

‘Religion is there, offering to lance guilt-filled pustules with forgiveness and ply the meaningless nothingness with tea and sympathy’

Can the benefit of a shared God be recreated for the wider community, without closing the doors on those who don’t believe? We have tried to create secular spatial alternatives – the library or public square – but none has been so successful in creating a self-funded organisation with volunteer labour, outreach programming and the capacity to absorb diversity. Retail outlets and chain coffee shops create gathering places for subsets of society – but only to buy, not to help each other out.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider the architecture of faith. The religious establishment has been slow to embrace social networking, but solitary enlightenment is being provided via Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. Fellowship and family are being offered here too, but online media have proved incapable of combating loneliness and fostering intergenerational exchange. To plug the loneliness gap, newly built sacred spaces should eschew the religious minimalist language now co-opted by commerce and embrace a new architecture of inclusivity with robust, flexible and cheap-to-run spaces that work hard for the community.

Lead image: 

Synagogue in the Negev Desert, Israel,  by Zvi Hecker (1967-69). Photograph by Henry Hutter