Wednesday, April 27, 2005
A few days ago, I mentioned an essay and book by Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global City," raised the matter of (what I regard as) the failure of the New Urbanism to take seriously enough the place and role of religion in urban life and institutions. The latest issue of The Weekly Standard also includes an essay (subscription required) by Kotkin, "Sects and the City," focused on this particular matter. Here is an excerpt:
[The] retreat from religion is one of the least understood and discussed aspects of the relative decline of the great cities of the West. To be sure, there are many other, more tangible causes--the rise of the Internet, the generations-long flight of the middle class to the suburbs, fear of terrorism. But the decline of religious community may reflect a deeper malaise that could weaken the very spirit of urban culture.
Churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques provide critical ballast for cities. In an often impersonal and challenging environment they offer a place of refuge and solace, a means of gradual assimilation for the newly arrived, and, perhaps most important, an alternative setting for the inculcation of values in the new generation. . . .
[I]n this secular era, it is difficult to recapture the centrality of religion during most of urban history. Religious structures--temples, cathedrals, mosques, and pyramids--dominated the landscape of great cities and the imagination of their occupants. These sacred buildings made visible cities' connections to divine forces controlling the world.
Today cities are dominated instead by towering commercial buildings and evocative cultural and governmental structures. Such sights can inspire a sense of civic pride or awe. "A striking landscape," historian Kevin Lynch once suggested, "is the skeleton" in which city dwellers construct their "socially important myths."
Yet memorable architecture and urban "myths" lack a critical component of urban life that religion provides: It is a source of moral order and spiritual sustenance. The earliest city dwellers confronted problems vastly different from those faced in prehistoric nomadic communities and agricultural villages. Urbanites had to learn how to co-exist and interact with strangers from outside their clan or tribe. This required them to develop new ways to codify behavior and determine what would be commonly acceptable in family life, commerce, and social discourse. In doing so, they drew on their religious heritage--not only in the West but virtually everywhere. The earliest cities in India, China, and Mesoamerica all displayed similar attachment to religious principles, suggesting, as the American historian T.R. Fehrenbach notes, the existence of a common sensibility among early city-builders in all parts of the world. . . .
Without the force of religion, as a driver of self-improvement and moral order, cities in America, Europe, and elsewhere cannot flourish. These places may own the name and inhabit the space of the great cities of the past, but without faith and family, they cannot be the vital centers of civilization that cities have been for the last five millennia.
Kotkin is really onto something, I think. In the spirit of Linda Richman: "Urbanism" without religion is good for neither cities nor religion. Discuss.