In defense of organized religion
With all the news surrounding the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, religion and in particular the Catholic Church have been the subject of much debate. Benedict XVI was widely considered a conservative Pope (although he was to the left of the Democrats on economic issues and the environment, which says a lot about the Democrats), so there was a lot of criticism of his papacy in progressive circles. But many of my liberal friends went further, and took this opportunity to criticize organized religion itself – a criticism often accompanied by the claim that it is better to be “spiritual but not religious,” or that “faith” is good but organized religion is bad.
Though this is sad, it is not surprising. Polls show that a rapidly growing number of Americans, especially young Americans, claim to be non-religious, but not atheist or agnostic either. These are the “nones”: people who do not wish to identify with any organized religion, but still hold beliefs in the supernatural. They often say that they wanted to free themselves from the constraints of traditional religions. They want to find God (or spirituality) on their own, and they think organized religion is too rigid, dogmatic or illogical.
Now let me be absolutely clear: abandoning organized religion to embrace an ill-defined “spirituality” is a rejection of logic and reason, not an affirmation of it.
Organized religion is organized precisely because it attempts to impose a logical structure and order upon the chaos of personal beliefs. It is a marriage of faith and reason. The Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant Churches have spent enormous time and effort to construct elaborate doctrines to ensure that their beliefs made logical sense, that they were not contradictory. Those who disparage religious doctrines for being supposedly unscientific are failing to realize that having a doctrine is far more rational than believing whatever feels right to you. The process of creating religious doctrine is one of deduction. If certain premises are true, what conclusions can we logically draw from them? The first part of this process involves faith, and the second part involves reason.
The problem with “spirituality” is that it throws all reason out the window. Rather than accepting a few ideas on faith and then drawing rational conclusions from them, “spirituality” means accepting a wide variety of mutually contradictory ideas from various sources and never thinking too hard about them.
For example, it is popular to say that all religions are just alternative paths to the same destination, or different ways of seeing the same God or the same Truth. This is not just wrong; it is so illogical to such an extent that it could not possibly be true. Different religions make entirely different claims about essential questions of life and death. It’s not just that some religions allow you to eat pork and others don’t. Some religions believe in reincarnation, while others believe in an afterlife, such as heaven and hell. The two cannot be reconciled, and there is no possible middle ground. Your soul can’t be half-reincarnated and half in heaven
Each of the great, organized religions of the world is a self-contained, internally consistent system of thought. What may appear dogmatic at first is simply an attempt to preserve that internal consistency. For example, if you are a Christian, then you cannot believe in reincarnation, fortune telling, or lucky charms, because that would contradict your other beliefs. You also cannot believe that Jesus was only a man, because that would make his death and resurrection, the most important part of the New Testament, entirely pointless.
To hold faith in God or the supernatural, while also “liberating” yourself from the constraints of organized religion, is like trying to build a suspension bridge but “liberating” yourself from the constraints of physics and engineering. The result won’t be an innovative structure that stands as a testament to your free spirit. It will be a tangled mess that will collapse as soon as a strong wind starts blowing.
Do-it-yourself religion is not progressive nor is it a haven for free thought. It is a breeding ground for superstition and fear. It is a throwback to an earlier time in human history, when spiritually free people could simply make up whatever stories they wanted and have people believe them. Today, we have similar examples such as the proliferation of “psychics,” self-improvement “experts,” cult leaders and conspiracy theorists. Do-it-yourself religion is the reason why 46 percent of Americans believe in creationism despite the fact that the vast majority of organized religious institutions (including the Catholic Church) reject it.
Compared to earlier, more disorganized belief systems, organized religion brought us a radically progressive innovation: the idea that religious leaders were no longer allowed to make things up as they went along. Organized religion has holy texts to be read and followed and theological precedents that limit the power of priests in the same way that legal precedents limit the power of judges and lawyers. Organized religion has laws, while “spirituality” is lawless. And, as anyone who has ever lived in a lawless part of the world can tell you, it is far more liberating to live under a system of laws, even bad laws, than to live in a place with no laws at all.
Paradoxically, organized religion was also the mother of atheism. Organized religion nurtured the idea that other religions are wrong, that their gods do not exist. This made it possible for people to imagine that perhaps all religions are wrong, and perhaps no gods exist. In a world filled with “spirituality,” where no one is definitely wrong, where religious beliefs are just a matter of personal opinion and they are all correct in their own way, atheism is almost inconceivable.
I am an Orthodox Christian, but I fully respect and understand the choices made by my friends and others who follow different organized religions, or who are atheists. Those options, organized religion and atheism, are internally consistent and rational systems of thought (note to the skeptic: empirical evidence is a different issue from rationality). If you consider yourself spiritual but not religious, please examine your beliefs more closely, and have the courage to pick a side.
Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.