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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Editorial 7 Issue 1299

Organised Religion and why we hate it so much

There are a number of phrases that get bandied around with great aplomb (or dare I say it, arrogance?), without meaning much. I think "organised religion" is one of these. Ever heard someone say something similar to this: "There could be a higher being out there, but I'm totally against organised religion"? We seem to swallow such affirmations eagerly without really questioning what we mean.

The danger, with this as with any expression that becomes devoid of real significance, is that we allow it to conjure up a set of emotions within us that are unrelated to any critical thought process. The phrase "organised religion" is now heavy with negative connotations, which is doubtless why so many people seem intent on being "against" it. But what is organised religion? And why is it such a bad thing?

There are at least four reasons why people might declare that "organised religion" is bad. First, they see it as coercing, or forcing people into joining an organisation (there's a clue for you) against their will. Think of the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Catholics and Protestants in Tudor Britain or the tax imposed on Christians in Egypt for centuries because they would not convert to Islam. Second, organised religion has been known to assert unduly strong political force. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church controlled large parts of Europe. The convergence between Church and State in Britain, although now weakened, was a point against which the founders of the United States reacted with their constitutional separation of the two entities. Third, it is indisputable that religious conflict has been responsible for countless atrocities. The Crusades spring most rapidly to people's minds; now, the situation in Sudan (and now, more specifically, Darfur). Fourth, it has been a tragic historical theme that religion has exploited the poor, usually based on a kind of emotional blackmail that leads people to believe they are jeopardising their spiritual or indeed physical well-being if they do not give to "God", funnily enough, through the Church. This is still the case in Brazil, where millions of poverty-stricken families are convinced that if they buy expensive ornaments from the Catholic or Evangelical Churches, they will experience material blessing.

Yes, "organised religion" has much to answer for. But is this because it is organised, because it is religion, or because it involves human beings, who are less than perfect? There are many irreligious organisations who have committed myriad atrocities: the regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot come to mind.

Is it bad because it is religion? But it is obvious that there are many religious organisations that do good. In Britain, Booth and Barnardo tackled the issues of poverty and street children. Elizabeth Fry worked for prison reform. Shaftesbury campaigned to stop child labour. Wilberforce helped abolish slavery. These people were all Christians; in fact, their social concern sprung from their Christianity. By being against any type of organised religion, one would have to condemn these examples.

Yes, sometimes religion has been distorted to justify sinister ends; but this is the case with most ideologies. Millions were killed for the satisfaction of one man in the name of Communism, a far cry from what Marx and Engels advocated. Could it be the case that fallible human beings are to blame, rather than religion itself? Is not religion just one more thing that is used by wicked humans to justify their own ends?

Crucially, what do we mean by "organised" anyway? Obviously an organisation like the Catholic Church is falls into the category. But what of a group of Muslim women that meet in the same place at the same time to pray? If two Christians meet up to do a Bible study, is this then wrong because they are organising something? Call a spade a spade: if you're against the Church of England, by all means say so and explain why, but don't let that morph into a generalised hatred of "organised religion".

Condemning organised religion logically equates into only allowing people to hold beliefs if they keep them to themselves, and do not consciously associate with anyone else who shares these beliefs. This is ridiculous, as I hope anyone can see. More seriously, it translates into prohibition of freedom of association, something I'm sure the same people who decry organised religion would hold dearly to if it came to, I don't know: an anti-war protest, for example.

So by being against organised religion, what are we saying? Are we against all organisation, because organised entities can commit wrong more extensively than individuals? Or are we actually relinquishing the right to freedom of association throughout society, simply because it's cool to hate God and whoever loves him? Religion is a soft target. But if you aim at it you must follow it through logically. Condemn organised religion, and you're striking a blow at the doctrine of civil liberty.



  • Hmmmmm. As ever a well written and interesting post/editorial. However, I'm not entirely convinced by your arguement.

    Firstly I think you can define organised religion (well at least I think I can). It is the organisation, theAnglican Church or Catholic Church for example. This organisation consists of an organisational structure; a hierarchy with popes or archbishops then bishops and priests and then at the bottom of the pile the congregation; it will also have a doctrinal basis which goes beyond the sacred text (look at the many papal bulls and letters etc in the Catholic Church); it will also have a an HQ, the Vatican, to again use the example of the Catholic Church. Granted other religions aren't quite so international in organisational structure, but they are still organisational at local level with a strict hierarchy (Imams or what have you). Now a group of Muslim women meeting on a Tuesday afternoon, aren't organisational in the same way. They don't have legal status as a group or a constitution, a hierarchy or what have you.

    Secondly it is not necessarily a problem with being legally and constitutionally organised, but more that this implies hierarchy, an above and a below. That these other members of the church (mosque, synagogue, whatever) are more important, that they are closer to God if you will. Now pardon me if I am being facetious (or blasphemous), but if God is all knowing and all seeing, why do you need to go through someone else to get to him? This is the point why do you need an organisational structure to worship a divine being? I just don't see it. Granted there is the community spirit aspect, but this could be achieved without the need for the men on high.

    Thirdy, leading on from my second point, the problem with a hierarchy (especially one such as in most churches that is unelected) is that it tells you what to believe and you have to believe it and obey it, otherwise you're bad. Now I don't feel that's very fair, who's anyone else to say how you should interpret your religion or your sacred text. Now granted you say this is all because we are imperfect beings, maybe so, but the organisational structure means that the imperfections of a select few have influence over a disproportionate number of people. It's the same with communism, a select few people had control over the doctrine and what could and could not be believed,and then look what happened. This is my main gripe about organised religion it has too much influence on its own congregation nevermind the outside world.

    Granted most of the problems I have mentioned are rather Catholic or Anglican Church specific, but they can to a lesser extent be seen in all religions with a hierarchical organisational structure. And even though I have said all this, your arguement that I would therefore be surpressing civil liberties is also rather facetious, I am not on about burning down churches, ending all religious meetings and shooting anyone who disagrees.

    Sorry if any of this causes any offence, I am not having a go, just have a mature political/theological dicussion ;-), cheers, Julien!

    By Blogger Julien, at 5:22 pm  

  • Well said Julien. The fact that Fry and Wilberforce were Christians and also worked within organisations seems to have very little to do with the question of organised religion. Even if we instead tried to argue that they were big supporters of organised religion, that doesn't automatically make organised religion good, or Fry and Wilberforce bad - no-one with an even vaguely sensible opinion believes that a bad organisation only produces bad people.

    And the argument that "Communism did bad things too!" is a tired one that needs to be put to sleep - for one thing there are writers that think that Soviet Communism had all the hallmarks of an organised religion anyway (a deity, a set text, intolerance of disagreement, etc.); Secondly, no-one mentioned Communism! At the start of the article you tell us you're argueing against the standpoint "organised religion is bad". No Communists mentioned anywhere. Unless you're assuming that the only people against organised religion are socialists (and after the "all socialists love Islamic terrorism" editorial of issue four, I'm sure you wouldn't be simplistically assuming that the views of everyone on the left are the same), then comparing the two seems at best arbitrary, at worst actively misleading.

    Personally I don't like the sound of organised religion because I don't like the idea of their being only one, specific set of rituals through which we can worship God/a god/whatever - I think the spiritual path should be a personal one and I believe organised religion restricts that personal level to some extent.

    By Anonymous Steven, at 2:21 pm  

  • Interesting, steven. "I think the spiritual path should be a personal one and I believe organised religion that personal level to some extent." Is that your own opinion, or was it conveyed to you by an external agency? If it's your own, in what sense can it have any absolute force? And if people believe that their religion is the result of absolute external agency, then can you see why they should feel that your argument has little epistemic force?

    By Blogger Paul (probably - maybe Liz), at 10:21 pm  

  • And people can believe their belief is the result of external force, but why do they believe that? Because someone/something told them it was so perhaps? Which therefore means someone only believes in an external force for their faith if they are told by an external force. So their personal faith is reliant on an outside organisational structure telling them, which was mine and steven's point....

    By Blogger Julien, at 11:53 pm  

  • Steven:

    1) Someone like Booth, who set up the Salvation Army, obviously set up an organised religion for the purpose of helping impoverished people. Thus, Organised Religion does come into the picture there. My point was not that organised religion is bad or good. Just that it is not INHERENTLY bad or good just by being organised, and being religion.

    2) Surely the point about Communism being seen by some as akin to organised religion kind of backs up my point? Given I was making the point that irreligious organisations can have the same effect. Just because Communism may have resembled some characteristics of bad organised religion "regimes" (I am not saying whether it did or it didn't), does not mean that in itself it was religious - because it clearly wasn't. I'm not sure what you mean about not mentioning communism at the start of the article - it's not a university essay where you have to set out your plan in your introduction! I think you're being a bit over-sensitive about the left thing - Communism was an arbitrary example, I did also have Thatcher in there but was reminded that she did often use quite religious language. Maybe I should have left her...

    3) RE: Socialists and Islamic terrorism. I think I made it pretty clear that that wasn't what I was saying, so the over-simplification seems at best a misunderstanding, at worst a deliberate goad.


    Let's take an organisation that isn't the Catholic Church, Church of England ETC. What about a group of non-denominational churches grouped together because of their affinity with each other in terms of how they believe they should worship God?

    You have to be a registered charity as a church if you are to organise yourself financially and because it's the law of the land. If people want to give money, which is in itself a spiritual act of personal devotion to God, then a bank account must be set up, etc etc. Is this organisation all wrong?

    Yes, you are right that some organised religion sends people on guilt trips for not adhering to rigid, (and wrong), rules and regulations. But my point is that NOT all organised religion is like that.

    I get the feeling that some people just want to define organised religion in a certain way in order to be right about this. If you define organised religion as just the bad organisations, then obviously we must come to the conclusion that it is "a bad thing".

    I'll leave Paul to explain his point further in response to Julien.

    Hope the front page article this week was acceptable, Steven.

    By Blogger Bec, at 12:53 pm  

  • julien/steve: So you believe that we can only know things subjectively? Can you see why this opinion has little objective force?

    By Blogger Paul (probably - maybe Liz), at 3:54 pm  

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