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January 16, 2010

In Defense of Organized Religion (1 of 2)

"If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18:19-20).

"Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).

I've recently heard some TV commentators say: "Americans tend to be very spiritual people, but they are much less religious than they were in the past". The commentators then proceed to explain the difference between spirituality and being "religious". Spirituality, they say, involves a personal quest for the Divine along with deeply held beliefs, while religion involves mere church-going, reciting wrote prayers . . . etc. They clearly intend to impress on the viewers the (alleged) superiority of individualistic "spirituality" over involvement in an "organized religion".

Organized Religion - the phrase is almost used as a slur by some today! Many seem to perceive organized religion as a source of all evil; the catalyst of wars, bigotry and genocide. This article will present a defense of this much-maligned aspect of human religious experience.

Now, this article is by no means a refutation of the importance of spirituality! I am all for spirituality, which I would define as having a personal relationship with God. Of course, my definition may not be everyone else's; it seems that nowadays "spirituality" can refer to anything from a vegetarian diet to calling up a psychic hotline. But since I come from a Christian rather than a "new age" perspective, I consider genuine spirituality to be a communion with the Supreme, Uncreated Spirit, our Triune Creator and Lord (John 4:24).

My belief, simply stated, is this: our spiritual life must be anchored in an organized, social expression of religious belief, so that it can undergo healthy growth and have a significant impact on the world at large. I would never trash genuine spirituality while defending religion, since I don't see the two as being in conflict! Please bear this in mind while reading the rest of the article.

Is Religion the Cause of All Wars?

Since this is a common objection to organized religion, let's get it out of the way first. There is no denying that organized religion has played, and still plays, a part in some wars and persecutions. So did atheism, particularly in its Communist form. In fact, athestic Communism was responsible for more wars and more human deaths during the twentieth century than was religion!

This charge may surprise some readers, but think about it for a moment. Consider all the bloody "communist revolutions" throughout the past hundred years: Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. How many millions of people lost their lives in those wars? Recall the brutal crackdowns by Communist governments on uprisings in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Tienamen Square; how much more blood was shed in those? Look at the massive genocide of Ukranians under Stalin, or of Tibetans under Mao, where tens of millions more people were slaughtered. These were not the fault of "organized religion"; rather, an atheistic political philosophy was the driving force behind all these atrocities - and many more!

We should also note that many "religious" wars are actually more deeply rooted in politics. For instance, the roots of the perennial unrest in Northern Ireland - always presented by the press as "Catholic vs Protestant" - actually go back 800 years, long before the Reformation. Political strife between Britain and Ireland existed when both were Catholic; only after Britain became Protestant did the dispute take on a religious aspect.

Even the ongoing conflict in the Middle East has a strong political element, since it originated with the displacement of Palestinians when Israel was founded. It has a religious tone because of the religious differences of all involved (Jews, Muslims and Christians) and the Israeli belief that the land is theirs by divine right. But we cannot ignore the strong role of politics in this dispute either. Reducing the whole conflict to "Jew vs Muslim" misses the true complexity of the situation. Besides, Jews and Muslims have not always been in conflict; in fact they have gotten along well at various times in history!

Before the Fall of Communism in Russia, both the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union had warheads pointed at each other. Theirs was certainly not a dispute based on religion, since both nations were officially atheist. The simple fact is that some people will find any excuse to hate others. Religion per se does not cause intolerance; intolerance is caused by two words: us and them! And those two words can divide people based on anything: politics, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc, etc....

So it is foolish to condemn organized religion as if it were the only source of strife and killing in the world!

Why Such Hatred of Organized Religion?

I recently initiated a discussion on a mailing list by asking "Why do you think people feel such intense animosity towards 'organized religion'?". The consensus was as follows (my thanks to everyone who contributed!):

Many people reject organized religion over the issue of authority. If something is 'organized', it means that someone is organizing it, and that everyone within the religion must "submit" to that organized structure: its teachings, morals, rituals and various requirements. This may also boil down to an issue of control. To submit to the authority of any church or religion involves giving up a certain amount of control, and some people just don't want to give any control over their lives to anyone or anything else. It is quite possible that some people who hate "organized religion" may have a problem with authority in general.

But that's not necessarily the only issue. Some people like to "pick and choose" elements from different religions which appeal to them, thinking that their beliefs can thereby include all religions, rather than just one. (Though they are really just creating a mixture of beliefs which reflect their own personal tastes, rather than fairly representing the beliefs of all religions.) Such people may resent being told "this religion is right; believe this religion not that one".

Others may dislike organized religion because of the moral discipline involved. They don't want restrictions imposed on their behavior and lifestyle in the name of "morality". Organized religion may tell them what they don't want to hear, like "contraception is wrong," or "homosexuality is immoral". They much prefer to invent for themselves a personal "spirituality" which will make no such demands on them.

Some people reject organized religion because of negative past experiences with a particular clergy or religious person. They blame an entire faith, or "religion" in general, for the actions of a single person, failing to recognize that there is more to any given religion than just one person. Yes, some religious people have done terrible things, but just because one individual does something wrong does not mean his entire faith system is bad. Even a group of wrongdoers within a religion would not necessarily disprove it; in fact, more often than not they are breaking the very tenets of their faith! Is it fair to dismiss an entire religion because a few of its adherents fail or refuse to live by its requirements? Do we not all sometimes fail to live up to even our own personal ideals? No one on earth today is perfect, after all.

There may be many more reasons for hating organized religion, such as the "religion starts wars" theory addressed above. And some people may certainly have more than one reason for rejecting it. If we can understand these objections, perhaps we can better show their flaws as well.

Why Organization?

Many human institutions are organized, or structured, but that does not make them bad. The most basic unit of human society - the family - has a structure to it. Families may not be perfect, but that's because they are made up of imperfect human beings. It is not per se the fact that they are "organized" which makes them bad; in fact, the family structure is necessary for the secure upbringing of children. So despite any flaws, the family is overall a good and necessary part of organized society.

Government is also organized. Like the family, government is not perfect because people are not perfect, but it is still necessary since the alternative - anarchy - is far less desirable! In case an "anarchist" is reading this, please consider that our ancestors developed varous forms of government over the millenia in order to keep the peace and preserve order in society. If we reject government because it is imperfect - or because it is "organized" - we would be discarding millenia of human wisdom. And past attempts to do that have caused tremendous problems!

Similarly, our ancestors also developed structured religions over the millenia. Even primitive tribes have some form of "organized religion", with holy men, rites, festivals and other social religious observances. As religion developed to satisfy the human need for worship, so organized religion developed from the basic human need for socialization. Humans are not solitary creatures, we are by nature gregarious. We need to be around other people. The human race developed [and preserves] both societies and organized religions out of that basic need for human contact and support.

Christians believe that the Church was founded by God Himself. God made us social creatures and gave us a need for one another which is so strong that it even manifests itself in natural human religious observance. Surely any religion founded by our Maker would fulfill our innate, God-given human need for a social, organized expression of faith. Thus the True Religion would naturally be an organized religion! Organized religion may not be perfect, but like family and goverment, it is necessary.

Some might argue as the philosopher Rousseau did, that civilization is bad and that people should return to "nature". Yet even in the untamed wilderness one could still not escape order, for nature herself has incredible order and structure! The seasons process in an orderly fashion, the various natural and reproductive cycles follow a set pattern. Even the smallest leaf has a complex structure which enables it to photosynthesize and so contribute to the life and growth of the plant. For that matter, even molecules and atoms have "structure"! The natural world could not exist without these structures, this "organization". So nature herself displays the usefulness of organization. If the Creator so organized nature, why would He not organize the true Faith as well?

Our own bodies are also marvels of order and organization. If our internal organs were not organized (no pun intended) into systems, and if all our systems did not work in tandem, we could not live! It's interesting that the Bible compares the Church to a "body"! Bodies have structure and organization, as should the Church! This is the will of the Creator, who "is not a God of confusion, but of peace" (I Cor 14:33)

Why Have Rules?

Some object to organized religion because it has so many rules. But families and societies also have rules, which are necessary to maintain domestic tranquility and help them to function. Nature, too, has her "rules" (we call them "laws of nature"), and scientists keep discovering new "laws of science". Why then shouldn't religion have laws and rules? If the Creator put order, structure, organization and even "laws" into nature, why wouldn't He do the same with religion?

Again, I'm not saying that organized religion is perfect; nothing in this world is perfect! All religions are made up of imperfect human beings, who will sometimes do wrong things. The same actually holds true for the personal "spirituality" often touted as superior to religion. Those involved in individualistic spiritual pursuits aren't perfect, so their "spirituality" is no more perfect than organized religion! (Indeed, it could too easily sink into narcissism and self-indulgence).

Article continued in Part II