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.