I’m growing weary of listening to people say that they distrust “organized religion.” Religion has nothing to do with it. What they really mean is that they distrust people.
Before any readers assume the following to be a rant in favor of religious traditionalism, let me be very clear about what I mean. I’m not advocating a certain style of worship or defending a particular denomination of Christianity. Rather, my weariness comes more from sadness and disappointment than with any personal offense that is taken. Of course, as an ordained minister, I am quite susceptible to insult when I hear people say things like, “I just don’t agree with organized religion anymore,” or “I believe in God, but I reject organized religion.” What these people are insinuating is that while I have surrendered my life to what is actually a very organized and structured system of faith, they’ve shrugged it off because it cramps their style. Ultimately, one of us is guilty of severe naivety.
Now, if you believe in a blending of relativism and syncretism when it comes to spirituality, then you are more than able to get away with rejecting “organized religion.” Syncretism is an attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures and ideologies. It’s the salad bar of religious expression. Relativism is the belief that knowledge and morality are expressed and understood differently depending on the culture or society in which you live – thus, truth is relative as opposed to absolute. Put the two together and you can mix and match and pick and choose the exact kind of spirituality that works for you – the perfect salad!
I’m never sure what word people dislike more, “organized” or “religion.” I often want to respond to people who complain about “organized religion” by simply asking, “So, does that mean you subscribe to disorganized religion, or organized atheism?” In other words, what alternative do you believe in? Any system of faith that has no order or structure is, by nature, chaotic. It breeds confusion and disorder. There can be no unifying belief and therefore no dependable sense of community. People who reject organized religion, whether they know it or not, uphold a belief that any expression of faith is a solitary enterprise if it holds any meaning at all. Not only is it all about you and God, but it’s up to you and you alone to determine exactly what this God of yours is like.
As I said at the start of this, it’s not religion that these self-described non-conformists have a problem with. Religion has always been the fall guy for people. It’s not that I don’t understand this. However, as an ordained minister, one of the most difficult tasks I face is trying to defend religion to people who have been betrayed by certain religious malcontents. I’ll give you an example:
A young man grows up Catholic, attends an authoritarian Catholic school, and is molested by one of the priests. In his anger and his shame, he holds a grudge against both the criminal who took advantage of him and the particular form of religious expression that that man apparently represented. (Nevermind the fact that the minute that priest subjected a child to his selfish human desires, he rejected the spirit of the very faith he was supposed to live as an example of.) Allegations against the priest arise, but little or nothing is done to hold him accountable. The abused man finds no justice; therefore, he very logically puts a distance between himself and everything that smacks of that crooked priest, including his church, his school, the local diocese, and the Catholic Church itself. Perhaps if the leaders of his church had immediately dealt with the priest’s transgression, the young man would retain some trust of that particular religious organization. However, in both cases, it was not the system but the people who failed him. It was the people who did not embody and maintain the call to faithfulness and righteousness that their religion espouses and venerates.
Several years ago, there was a slogan that was often seen slapped across car bumpers and printed on T-shirts. It read, “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord.” As if the Beatles were right and love is really all you need. No rules. No traditions. Certainly no silly rituals. Just love, baby. Love! But even Christians who preach such an alleged truth have stripped Love of its full power and position. According to the New Testament, while love is the highest and greatest expression of one’s faith, it is by no means the only thing. The Apostle Paul reminds the church in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” (3:14), and he explained to the church in Galatia that while following rules and religious regulations may seem important, what really matters is faith “made effective through love.” Love must be the end result of all others aspects of a faith system – the final unifying theme of one’s religious expression.
It’s hard to keep from blaming Religion for all the bad things religious people have done. Sweeping generalizations are easier and more compelling than separating the glimmering needles from the smelly haystack. Over the last few centuries, many people, from Karl Marx to Sigmund Freud to George Orwell to John Lennon to Richard Dawkins to Bill Maher, have boldly spoken out about the inherent evils and detriments of Religion in all its many forms. But whether they admit it or not, Religion isn’t the problem. Just the crappy way some people live out their religious beliefs. I’ve written before that blaming religion for all of the world’s ills is akin to burning all the cotton and tobacco fields of the American South simply because there were once a slew of culturally racist individuals who forced others to toil in those fields. It’s not the cotton and tobacco fields’ fault that some people are stubborn and violent fools.
In other words, when we shift the blame off of people, we insinuate that Religion itself has inherently sinister motives. This is scapegoating by way of personification. This is stating that it influences us, and only in negative ways. If this were the case, we would be hard-pressed to find religious individuals who have influenced the world for good, but, of course, that task is not difficult at all.
Finally, to all those who have supposedly rejected “organized religion” – especially to those people who have rejected the word “Christian” for the less traditional-sounding “follower of Jesus,” or have decided that, like Marcus Mumford, it shall be mum’s the word on what one specifically believes – I make one final argument. It seems that in doing away with this stuffy and frustrating organized religion, the one thing you refuse to relinquish is belief in a loving and gracious God. In fact, when pressed, you become even more uncomfortable with the concept of God’s judgment and holiness. It’s all about love, baby. Love!
But ask yourself where that concept of a loving God first came from? Not merely a god who would look down in conciliating acceptance once you offered up the right sacrifice or performed the proper deed, but a God whose mercy is wide. A God whose nature, at its center, is Love. This isn’t a theological concept common to all religions throughout time. As a matter of fact, there are only two specific religions in which this characteristic is found to be at the heart of God. Unfortunately for the syncretists, neither fits in well at the salad bar. Sorry.
My point is, don’t let bad people steal your hope in the good. Don’t let cruel people rob you of your joy. Don’t turn your back on the grandeur and the beauty just because some misguided soul with an obnoxiously big hat sat in front of you and blocked your view. Lean over a bit, or move a few seats down. The show goes on, and it is more than worth the price of admission.