The Problem With Organized Religion

(Well, a problem.)

An essay by Dave Van Domelen, copyright 2006.

    For most of my life, I've found organized religion unsatisfying or even unpleasant for a variety of reasons. The corruption that power brings, inter-sect struggles, etc. But recently I came to a realization that there was a single core aspect of organized religion that either caused all the other problems, or at best exacerbated them.

    In short, the competition between different religions forces them to focus on the trivial, unimportant doctrinal differences and lose sight of the important things they all supposedly agree on.

    You see, one of the things we education researchers like to harp on is that students will only learn things that they expect they will be tested over. If there's no consequences for not learning something, many of them won't even bother. Telling them that something will be important later makes no dent in this attitude, if it's not going to be tested over this term, forget about it. This extends to the matter of religious doctrine: the faithful will take to heart best those things that seem to matter in the immediate earthly tests. You may tell them that the really important things for getting into heaven are to love one another and so forth, and that message does work on some, but all too many will take away as important lessons only the things that the religion emphasizes in practical matters.

    What am I talking about here? Doesn't every church emphasize the Big Picture stuff all the time, the stuff like "love your neighbor" or "be humble before God"? Yes...but.

    You see, all religions must compete for worshippers. And in times and places where "join or die" tactics are frowned upon, that means convincing potential converts that your way is better than the one they already have, and better than any other faith that might be trying to recruit them. After all, if you're not an improvement, if you're not the best choice out of many, why join?

    Unfortunately, to be better, you pretty much by definition also have to be different. And while it's possible to promote a faith on the basis of "we believe everything that they do, we just implement it better," most of the time the sales pitch will include ways in which the one faith differs from the other, then pointing out that this is a better way.

    Inevitably, this leads to the recruitment focusing not on the Big Truths, but rather on the fiddly doctrinal details. Continue this sort of thing long enough, and you get a congregation that places more emphasis on the small details than on the Big Truths, either because they were recruited on the basis of those details, or because they've seen their own recruiting teams spend so much effort on the small details. The Big Truths start getting taken for granted, and everyone (or close enough) puts their energy into enforcing those details.

    Thus, you get churches where everyone gets in a big tizzy over gays, or dancing, or styles of clothing, or the choir, or whatever. And you can get some pretty intolerant, hateful people in leadership positions, because the goals of the religion are no longer love and charity, they're promotion of the small details. Intolerant, hateful people are often a lot more effective at that sort of thing than loving, inclusive folks. "Sure, the Bishop is hard to live with, but he's managed to keep Those People out of our church so far!" That sort of thing.

    And, unfortunately, in the marketplace of ideas, the nice guys really do finish last. You'll get the occasional religions that try to focus on the commonalities rather than the differences, but they tend not to be very influential. It's easier to sway the average person with the sales tactics of the small details folks, and it just leads into a vicious circle where the Big Truths are more and more forgotten.

    Alternatives? Not many. I suppose God could appear in the skies, say He's tired of all of us screwing around doing evil in His name and clearly lay out the way He really wants us to do things, but that seems unlikely at this point. Either He has infinite patience with us, or doesn't exist in the first place...we would have used up any finite store of patience long ago. Alternately, we could have a single world religion with all dissent ruthlessly stamped out, but that's worse than what we do have by several orders of magnitude. Religion is just one of those inventions that, like the internal combustion engine, brings a lot of benefits but also carries increasingly toxic drawbacks. Eventually something's going to break.

    What about my way through this? Well, to mangle Groucho, I refuse to join a religion that wants to recruit me as a member, at the very least. At this time I don't even believe in God, so it's more of a rhetorical question, but should I find faith in God at some point, I don't see myself joining any organized religion. Maybe I'd join the Unitarian Universalists...I hear they sometimes even take atheists.

Dave's Philosophical Natterings
Dave's Online Nest