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January 16, 2010

In Defense of Organized Religion (2 of 2)

Part I of this article is here.

The Appeal and Pitfalls of "Private Spirituality"

An individualistic approach to spirituality undoubtably has a certain appeal, especially to Americans. The United States was built on the principles of independence, personal rights and on the "rugged individualism" of the pioneers and gold prospectors, so Americans tend to have a very independent streak.

As a consequence, many modern forms of religion in America, from Evangelical Protestantism to the "New Age movement", have strong individualist tendancies. Evangelicalism is based on the belief in Jesus as ones personal Savior, and in ones personal interpretation of Scripture. Unfortunately, this overemphasis on the "personal" aspect of faith leads some adherents to a "Just Jesus and me" spirituality out of touch with the teachings of Scripture and the spirit of Christianity. The New Age movement is even more radically individualistic. Apart from a few New Age churches and cults (ie. the so-called "Liberal Catholic Church", Silent Unity, Church of Religious Science, Freemasons and the cultic "Church Universal and Triumphant"), most New Ageism is decidedly individualistic and anti-institutional.

But a private, "do-it-yourself" spirituality without organized religion has many drawbacks. As noted at the end of Part I, it tends toward self-centeredness. Also, like many other individualistic elements of modern Western society, it ultimately leads to a sense of loneliness and isolation. People who shun "organized religion" may seem "free" but in truth they are like "spiritual orphans", with no mother or father, no family in which they belong. An appreciation of the family of God would work as an antidote to the radical isolation of modern Western society.

Organized Religion's Contribution to the World

The curmudgeonly comedian George Carlin once wrote something to the effect that "the only good thing that ever came out of religion was the music". I suppose if I answer that statement I might sound like a person who "can't take a joke". Well, I understand full well that he was telling a joke (he's a comedian, after all), but since Carlin distains religion in general, I tend to think the quip was half-serious! It is that serious half of the joke which I will now address.

So music was the only good thing came out of religion? What about the other arts? What about Byzantine icons and Renaissance masterpieces? Michelangelo would have never painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling were it not for organized religion.

What about philosophy? The Church is often unfairly lambasted for the so-called "Dark Ages" (a misnomer), but the medieval Church established universities which preserved higher learning, and theologians such as Thomas Aquinas even used Aristotle's philosophy in his own works. Moreover, the Renaissance could not have occured were it not for Christian monks who preserved ancient manuscripts containing knowledge of classical philosophy. It's time we recognize that the Renaissance was not a rejection of the "Middle Ages", but their full flowering.

What about science and medicine? It seems that science does not wish to acknowledge its origins in religion; yes, even in primitive religion and superstition. Alchemy preceeded chemistry, astrology was the original astronomy, primitive herbalism preceeded (and contributed to the development of) modern medicines. Medieval monastics kept herb gardens and used them in medicinal preparations. Science and religion have not always been in conflict either. During the Renaissance, many Catholic priests were scientists and mathematicians! What about the great contribution to science made by Johann Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), a Catholic monk? His experimental work in the field of heredity was the basis for modern genetics. Organized religion made great contributions to science before and even after the tragic [so-called] rift between faith and reason, religion and science.

So music was the only good thing that came out of religion? What about hospitals? Why are so many hospitals called "Mary Immaculate" or "Columbia Presbyterian" or "Maimonedes" - religious names? Because they were founded by religions - and organized ones at that! In fact, it is precisely the organized nature of a religion which enables it to offer an organized system of health care. An organized religion has a philanthropic ethic which encourages care for the sick, the finances to build the hospital, and adherents to run it. A self-centered, personal, feel-good "spirituality" does not have all those things, so it does not tend toward the establishment of hospitals.

What about charities and disaster relief agencies? Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Christian Children's Fund, Salvation Army...all religiously oriented! In fact, the majority of all relief work around the globe is performed by organized religion! Where would mankind be without their help in time of need? Would everyone be better off if organized religion were abolished and all the world's unfortunates just left to die?

What about all the counseling centers, orphanages, ministries to youth, universities, scholarships, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and nursing homes run by organized religions? Should we abolish them too? Would humanity be better off without them? Or do you honestly expect government to do the whole job in these areas? The government is overburdened as it is, and the services of organized religion in these areas have been invaluable.

Sure, some forms of "organized religion" can be oppressive, but organized religion can also correct its own oppressivenes, or even challenge the prejudices of the larger society. Think of the role which religion played in American abolitionism, women's suffrage, and, more recently, the civil rights movement. How many members of organized religions have spoken up for the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchized, and members of oppressed ethnic groups? Would we be better off without religion's leadership in the area of civil rights?

Though organized religion may not be perfect, it has made a tremendous contribution to the world. How much poorer would we all be without it!

Secular Humanism and Non-Theistic Religions

Some may object that secular humanists are dedicated to humanitarian causes apart from organized religion. But from where did they get this humanitarian ethic if not from organized religion, particularly Western ones like Christianity and Judaism? As much as humanists may trash theism, they are indebted to its example of ethics and love for ones neighbor. As someone once said, secular humanists read the play but refuse to acknowledge the author.

This is a good place to mention the phenomenon of "non-theistic religions". Some atheists and agnostics have actually formed their own fellowships which exclude God (or at least the traditional concept of Him) while maintaining many aspects of "organized religion". [One example is the Unitarian Church, or the more recent atheist organizations].

Reconstructionist Judaism stresses the importance of Jewish community and civilization over the traditional belief in a personal God. Their concept of "God" is non-supernatural: instead of a transcendent Supreme Being, Reconstructionists say that "God" is a power or force in the universe which can be experienced within oneself as one's conscience. They have synagogues, rabbis and celebrate many Jewish rituals, with an emphasis on community rather than worship.

Ethical Humanism (aka Ethical Culture) is a 125 year-old non-theistic "religious" movement which holds that human betterment is more important than belief in a deity (it "neither affirms nor denies" the existence of God). Ethical Humanist Societies hold meetings on Sundays; run "Ethics Schools" for children (a non-theistic Sunday School!), perform weddings and funerals, and in many ways mimic theistic religions without requiring any belief in God or adherence to a creed.

Perhaps the most curious of the non-theistic religions is the Religion of Humanity, founded by the French philosopher Auguste Compte (1798-1857). Based on his philosophy of "Positivism", this religious system worships "Humanity" as a substitute for God, and is actually patterned after Catholicism - complete with its own dogmas, a "Positivist Catechism" and a heirarchical priesthood. Scientists, poets, philosphers and artists are its "saints"; each one is even assigned a "feast day"! A painting of a woman (symbolizing Order) holding a child (symbolizing Progress) substitutes for the Virgin Mary; it is displayed prominently in the "Temples of Humanity", Positivist houses of worship in which Sunday services are conducted!

These movements are nowhere near as large as the traditional theistic religions. Yet their existence is telling, since they show that even atheists can feel a need for "organized religion"!


As I stated at the beginning, I do not intend to downplay the importance of spirituality. Ideally, religion and spirituality should complement one another; they can and often do work in harmony. Whether we realize it or not, they actually need each other! Spirituality is to organized religion what the soul is to the body. Without spirituality, religion is a corpse, but without a structured religion to embody it, spirituality is a wispy, insubstantial ghost. Only together can they be whole; only together can the have an impact on the world!

If "organization" is so necessary in civilization, in the natural world and in our own bodies, why not in religion? No system composed of flawed humans will ever be perfect, but that doesn't mean it should be rejected or disbanded. Organized religion exists because human beings have an innate need for a ritual and social expression of their deeply-held beliefs. Even some people who don't believe in God recognize that need within themselves and seek to satisfy it. Do you?