The Religion of Coffeehouses

The Mad Tale of Paul
August 24, 2012
Blades of Grass
August 28, 2012

Six years ago, I sat in this same place, coffee at my fingertips, and talked about coffeehouse culture. But it was more than just a sketch on the fly—it was a dissertation on the religion of coffeehouses.

The potentially discordant thing about waxing on religion in a coffeehouse now, is that I write in a predominantly gay coffeehouse. For many here, religion is a bad word; this is a haven where religion does not tread.

But let’s be honest: we devote ourselves entirely to the morning ritual of three-shot iced mocha frappucinos. We commune with friends over breakfast burritos, white chocolate-raspberry scones, and stories about life. We are in fellowship. This is religion, if ever I knew it.

Lest we be mistaken, though, I should stop there and confess: religion is more than just fellowship. It rests on a transcendence and trust that cannot be found over a cup of coffee. Yes, we trust our baristas to make our frappucinos just right, and yes, we trust that when we tell our best friend about the boy we drunkenly slept with two nights ago, she won’t share it with the rest of the world.

But that’s not the same thing as trusting in, say, redemption of our souls. We certainly don’t entrust that to our baristas—even our best friends. The trouble is, to do that, we have to let go and have faith.

You might have noticed this over the course of your life, but we humans are stupendously awful at “letting go.” We like to have control, and we demand answers. In the grand scheme of things, ignorance is no more bliss than a kick in the face. And this, both beautiful and a curse, has bled our religion dry.

You see, what I witness when I come to coffeehouses—gay or straight—is religion lite. I see signs that we love ritual, we love ceremony, we love the idea of trust and can even engage in it limitedly. But this is as far as we go. We love religion, truth be told—the visceral, tangible, completely accessible, unchallenging, comforting kind.

And it isn’t unique to coffeehouses. I see it proliferate our rituals of shopping, movie-gazing, family-rearing, politicizing. We love religion—as long as we’re shaping it, and it doesn’t get too heavy.

When I talk to my non-Christian gay friends, what we always can relate to is the idea of fellowship—getting together with friends and family. We love to share meals together. We reveal parts of our lives to each other. And we love tradition—get-togethers that happen in the same way, on the same day, with the same people. Isn’t that the framework of organized religion?

In the gay community, many eschew religion because religion seems to have eschewed them. I will not pretend to defend the church from these accusations—religion has done some awful things to those in the LGBT community. But it has done awful things across the board, and those in all walks of life are upset with organized religion. What we have taken from it are the delicious comforts and left behind the challenges.

My “dissertation” six years ago tried in vain to uncover a New Age religion—that which develops in secular culture and carries its own spirituality. And yes, this exists. But more often than not what I see is a watered down appropriation of what religion should be in its greatest form—with no great effort to make it more than a cup of coffee, a happy fellowship, and a chorizo burrito with salsa.

Is there anything wrong with getting together over a cup of Joe? Certainly not. But what I see, good or bad, is secular religion brewing in coffeehouses across the country. It is a shadow of religion as it has existed for millenia, and it tempts us to think that we can have control over what this religion—and faith—business is all about.

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