Has religion run its course?

By Martha Woodroof Have organized religions simply run their course? We’re not stuck with them, you know, just because they’ve … Continued

By Martha Woodroof

Have organized religions simply run their course?

We’re not stuck with them, you know, just because they’ve been around for thousands of years, employ masses of people, convene community, exercise formidable political clout, declare dominion over science, control valuable real estate, and claim their sacred texts to be direct from God.

As a person of faith who is not religious, I do honor religions for offering us ways to come together in recognition that God is, and I fully acknowledge the good work these institutions do. But organized religions also generate a sense of arrogant entitlement and false righteousness in followers that, in God’s name, excuses discord and violence – as well as making followers vulnerable to political, social and sexual exploitation by the diverse likes of Glenn Beck, Pope Benedict XVI, and Osama bin Laden.

Isn’t it time we ask ourselves if organized religions, as they are currently at work in the world, are still the best ways for us to come together in God’s presence–or are they are simply the way we’re most used to? Why do we become religious in the first place? Do we believe what our religion tells us is true, or are we more interested in its offer of institutionalized structure and comfort? Do we sign on to be, say, an Episcopalian or a Saktas or a Mahayana because these sects offer us ways to make the best use of our working partnerships with the Almighty, or do we sign on mostly to avoid the unsettling reality that God is unknowable, death is mystery, and there is no instruction manual for life?

A quick side word here about the devil. I see life as a choice between two ways of being: one where we are open to reality in God’s company; and one in which we turn away from reality for our own emotional and intellectual comfort. So when I talk about the devil, it’s not as an entity living somewhere hot, but as whatever weakens our grasp of reality in favor of what we’d be more comfortable with.

As far as I can tell from the outside, people involve themselves with organized religions for a variety of reasons, some of which seem good (a longing to feel part of a productive community, a way to strengthen their partnerships with God, a way to do good works); and some of which seem bad (habit, social pressure, fear, an intolerance for ambivalence).

On some days (and today must be one), I see organized religions’ ways of organizing and structuring our individual partnerships with God as among the devil’s most effective strategies. Why? Because, to some degree, having one’s relationship with God organized by religion weakens one’s ability to face the world as it actually is. Participating in organized religion also siphons off the energy, time and money people spend maintaining religious organizations that could be more usefully spent tackling today’s real world problems.

Oh dear, organized religion as the devil’s tool. If Glenn Beck is right (or God has no sense of humor), I am so going to hell. Yet – gulp – I’d still like to suggest that organized religions, as they function today, often work to weaken faith – to diminish the reach and power of our working partnerships with God, the great Whatever.

I recognize that many people of faith (including myself) have a need to gather together in God’s name – to seek the shelter and comfort of congregation. But please, do ask yourself if today’s organized religions still function as truly productive ways to do this? Would you rather die having been active in your church or mosque or synagogue, or active – as God’s partner – in doing your best to be useful out there in the real world?

Martha note: This is round five of Faith Unboxed, an ongoing, civil, respectful conversation about faith I invite you to participate by sharing your own ideas and experiences (either here or on the website), rather than by denigrating the ideas and experiences of others.

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  • Mary370

    I’m Catholic which in the above article is equated with terrorism. When advocating that something is better than what is currently happening, I was always taught to shine a positive light on the benefits of the proposed change. I don’t see that light. I see political and religious persecution in the Church of Woodruff. Glenn Beck is heckled for speaking and the Pope for being Catholic.

  • gibsonpolk

    “Person of Faith”. What exactly does that mean? Look at it closely. Does that mean you believe, maybe even prefer to believe, things without evidence, things contrary to reason? How is this different from a delusion? Just because lots of other people believe the same thing? How do you know what other people believe, if you reject your innate ability to reason?As an atheist, who is trying to respectfully grapple with religion, I am beginning to think that “god” is less of a problem than “faith”. “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  • msgtquah

    My answer to her question is, “I would rather die having been active in my church or mosque or synagogue, AND active – as God’s partner – in doing my best to be useful out there in the real world.”

  • usarownow

    Typical Washpost tostie hate parading as, um, um, something else.

  • areyousaying

    Religion in America has been turned into a political tool – it hasn’t run its course but has become something more evil and sinister than it was before. Glenn Beck Christian theocracy is coming to America with a bible opened to leviticus in one hand and a moose rifle in the other. (with apologies to Sinclair Lewis)

  • areyousaying

    “People of faith – awk!””People of faith – awk!””People of faith – awk!””People of faith – awk!”As if other people have no faith?I have faith Elder Beck will prevail in exploiting Jesus Christ to defeat Obama, his Bishop Romney will become President, and NASA will build a huge spaceship so Mormons can “hie to Kolob”, the planet where they believe God lives, and take the rest of you “people of faith” with them.

  • Secular

    Why is it that all these folks wish to have a relationship with a guy or a character, whose existence cannot even be ascertained with any degree of certainty. If any thing all the evidence points to its non-existence. Every, rationalization offered so far has been shown to be false. The latest being the evolution of Bacterium Flagellum has also been discounted. Why do you insist on occupying, and why does WAPO get suckered to provide the forum, to these folks? I know, I know, they are too numerous to not exploit them.

  • AKafir

    Martha,I agree with you. A minor discordant note: “I see life as a choice between two ways of being: one where we are open to reality in God’s company; and one in which we turn away from reality for our own emotional and intellectual comfort.”Lise “IS”. The binary or more varied choice is merely our attempt to organize it so we can try to make sense of it. The binary choice you lay out are really not mutually exclusive. The way you have phrased it, they appear to be more similar than different.

  • AKafir

    ‘Lise is’ should be ‘life is’ in the previous post.

  • Secular

    edbyronadams, your repartee “The bigger mystery is why such ardent atheists hang around. I know, I know. Huge egos are hard to contain.”, duly noted. I know, I know, ya’ll pray to sky daddy that we atheists vanish away. Looks like your skydaddy is not very good at throwing thunderbolt, as Zeus used t0

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    edbyronadams, your repartee “The bigger mystery is why such ardent atheists hang around. I know, I know. Huge egos are hard to contain.”, duly noted. I know, I know, ya’ll pray to sky daddy that we atheists vanish away. Looks like your skydaddy is not very good at throwing thunderbolt, as Zeus used t0Posted by: SecularHowever, there is one with lotsa gods, whose adherents pray to statues.I, myself, find the the Big Mommie goddess with big breasts, four arms, 400 children in the sky (a record, no doubt), standing on a corpse, a Mommie worth considering.Notes on Big Daddy to follow.

  • WmarkW

    “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”That’s a somewhat overstatement. Believing in the divine authorship of a holy text might seem like an acceptable act of faith. Until you start using it to rule people who don’t share your faith. Then it becomes more like the kind of prejudice used to justify discrimination.The gay marriage debate is largely between those who think limiting marriage to its traditional definition is a positive act of faith and those who think it’s a negative act of prejudice.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    I think the author’s question is important. Have organized religions served their purpose? Have some of them become nothing but self-protecting wealthy corporations whose deity(ies) cringe at most of what they do? Are some murderous? Enslaving? Crazed?Does a building have dibs on transcendence? A crucifix, cross, crescent, star? Does a crowd? A book? A statue?

  • aalex1

    Actually, it’s the secular media that has run its course. The Washington Post and other “secular” media (actually, anti-religious media) is losing readers because it continues to attack faithful people who have a hunger for spiritual guidance and discussion. To include Pope Benedict XVI in the same sentence as Osama bin Laden is outrageous. One is a terrorist the other is the most important religious leader of our time. To Catholics, faithful to their Church, Pope Benedict is the Vicar of Christ, a teacher of the faith and a beacon of light at a time when attacks on truly faithful people is the norm. Your story is not debate but pure slander and propaganda The usual media outlets are being replaced by visionary publishers like Ignatius Press in San Francisco. Ignatius produces books and other materials that fairly and objectively address the information needs of people truly interested in seeking the truth about religion and its impact on their daily lives.The drop in readership of the traditional medial is about the lack of objective content, not the internet or the cost of paper or labor.

  • Mary_Cunningham

    Dear Martha Woodruff,I would submit, Martha, that it is (Your false dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ is similarly absurd.)

  • Secular

    Trying to find any meaning other than “I’m smart, you’re dumb” in most posts of atheists is a fairly fruitless task. My religion hasn’t a sky daddy either. We just try to find enlightenment through the lessons of the sage of the Shakyas.Posted by: edbyronadams | September 4, 2010 7:32 PM___________________________________________We atheists are not really into “who is smarter” game. We are only into finding out the rationale for truth claims and challenging, laced with humor, those we find beyond the pale, insofar as lack of substantiating evidence. If providing the evidence is a fruitless task, then let the chips fall, where they may. By the way if he was the sage of Shakyas, then we have no use for him. However, I thought he was just sage, who was a Shakya, whose wisdom everyone can draw on. But then I am no scholar of the nuances of false truth claimsComing to my taste in women runs more along the petite lines than any thing big, nor anything so fecund. So I am more partial to Indra’s apsarasas like Rambha, Vurvasi, Menaka, Thilottama, et al. Although I concede neither do I have his appetite nor his roving eye.

  • Secular

    Mary, & Alex I agree that putting Osama 7 Ratzinger in the same category is a stretch, but depends on how broad the category is. If the category is Bigots, then I don’t think it is really a stretch. Have you read his thoughts about other religions, other than Christianity and Judaism? My suspicion is that his inner thoughts may not be as generous about Judaism either. But that is my personal opinion. Coming to the question of whether he has done any harm or not, I think it is best to ascertain the opinions of those poor children of the Irish orphanages, and the choir boys all around the world, before going out on the limb for Mr. Ratzinger.

  • mindthegap

    So what exactly do we mean by Religion? Do we mean organized religion? Or belief in God? It’s possible to have one or both of the above without the other(s). Be that said, there is no doubt that organized religions, creeds, faith traditions, etc. have been a source of violence and discord throughout history. Getting rid of that part would be good. My question is what would replace the GOOD parts–ex., the things that keep me going to a church although I have ambiguous feelings about that church (and would about any). I go to experience the gathering of a community; socializing; dialogue about meanings; the marking of life’s passages in celebration and mourning; and working together to make a better world. Sadly, not every churchgoer wants the latter activity. The demagogue Beck advises his flock that if the church they attend talks about social justice, they should run away from it — yet movements toward a more just and compassionate world often draw power from scriptures and faith (ex., Martin Luther King, Gandhi). Can we separate ethics (justice, compassion) from religion and not lose some of the momentum that it can give toward making a better world?

  • Secular

    PS, Secular: If you can pinpoint your very fundamental logical error, I’ll respond. Somehow, I doubt your ability to, but I’ll keep an open mind.Posted by: Mary_CunninghamI am not sure what you are alluding to in this post and the one 4 minutes earlier. I had responded to your previous post of indignation that Osama & Ratzinger were put in the same category. While agreed with you on that particular narrow instance, I said as for bigotry goes they will both fall in the same category. If this is in response to that, I am not seeing much point in you long winded copy and paste exercise. I do not read any evidence showing that Ratzinger is not a bigot nor do I see any evidence showing Osama is not a bigot. So I am at a loss as what to say. If this is a some kind of a test by you to me about my cerebral capacities, then I will have to advise you this. I am not and don’t wish to be a scholar of biblical inanities and commentaries about them. When I opened genesis and read about talking snakes and trees of knowledge, that was enough for me. I decided I did not need any scholarship in such sill & stupid book. So the ball is back in your court to show that Osam is not a bigot or Ratzinger is not. Which will it be?

  • eezmamata

    Secular, remember that mary cunningham is a well known rabid catholic on this forum, who seems to have disappeared for a while.See how she uses things people have written about the jesus christ character in her religion as proof that her particular variant is the only true christian church.How surprising to see that, eh?And as always, it is a pure belly laugh to read religious personnel such as her belaboring the logical minds of others.

  • mindthegap

    More thoughts: I read somewhere (I think in the book Carry Me Home, by Diana McWhorter) that the American Civil Rights movement had a mostly secular leadership in its early, less-widely noticed years, but that later, finding pastors to lead and organizing in churches became intentional. I wonder if that movement, or the movement led by Gandhi in India, could have had quite the same impact without the spiritual connections? Would those who took part and often risked their lives have summoned the same courage and moral clarity (encompassing forgiveness as well as the nonviolent fight), or banded together as well, or gained the same respect for what they were doing in the eyes of the world if their rhetoric had been strictly secular? Of course, such movements are by no means typical within any religions…but didn’t the religious connections help?

  • gratianus

    As long as people need a reason to hate others, religion will retain its radical utility.

  • bpai_99

    Truly, religion is the monster in humanity’s closet, still lurking in the shadows from a time before science and reason, always biding its time to burst its chains and drag us back into the abyss. The Christian God (for example) and its Bible have been used to justify the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, genocide and apartheid. Someday humanity will emerge from its intellectual infancy, take responsibility for itself in the here/now and face the universe without a crutch. In doing so, we hopefully also can discard the mind-boggling arrogance that maintains we are at the center of the universe, and that the supreme force that created everything us in its image (that’s really kind of a cute presumption, in an intellectually childish way).

  • Secular

    I wonder if that movement, or the movement led by Gandhi in India, could have had quite the same impact without the spiritual connections?Posted by mindthegap Actually the Indian independence movement was actually initiated after the first war of independence of 1857, by Secularists for the most part. No doubt a significant leaders were devout within their personal life but were for most part were secular in their public life. In fact Nehru and even Jinnah were really atheists. Nehru was an atheist until he breathed his last. Alas his daughter was not. In fact there is hardly any occasion that I can recall Nehru making any public displays of or feigning any of those ridiculous superstitions for public consumption at all in his 17 years of stewardship.Him being cremated on a funeral pyre, with the LEECHES of the society – the priests was thanks to his till then an atheist herself Indira. She herself was married to a another Zoroastrian born atheist Feroze Gandhi. The most disgusting of all that happened after Nehru died was the decrypt Catholic church held a mass and performed some ceremonial funeral services for a life long atheist, to ingratiate itself to the ruling Congress party. Such is the debasement of catholic church. These good for nothing religionists cannot let a dead atheist lie dead.

  • Secular

    Secular, remember that mary cunningham is a well known rabid catholic on this forum, who seems to have disappeared for a while.By EezmamataThanks for the info

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    The Catholic Church is very mixed up. I do not suppose anyone can blame it all on the current sitting Pope, but it does seem beyond his capacity, even to begin to get things straightened out. I don’t know about Irish Catholics living in London, but Catholics that I know, in America, seem to be pulled in every direction at once, with no clear guidance on how to live realistically and preactially.I know there is a smart Catholic answer for my complaint, but smart Catholic answers to criticsm is not helpful, not good enough, and doesn’t seem to be doing any good.

  • JPDG

    Religion is going out the door, huh? That would work if Jesus wasn’t so persistent in finding the lost. That guy sure has tenacity.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    Secular:Thanks for the links. I especially like the red tongue hanging out. And, really, what’s a head or two among friends.

  • usapdx

    How many fully believe in all that their religion teaches and know the full true history of their religon? Bear in mind man made controls of the membership.