Est. May 2008

18 July, 2013

On Religion

Michelle Boorstein’s article over at WaPo got me thinking about the word ‘religion’. What does it mean? What does it mean to the average person? I think there’s a pretty big difference between the answers to those two questions.

As All About Religion points out, there are a lot of different definitions for the word ‘religion’. Pretty much, any belief system at all tends to be defined as a religion, even though the dictionary defines ‘religion’ as:
a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Ms Boorstein points out some of the problems people have with ‘religion’ (the word); if you look at the problems, though, you see that it really isn’t ‘religion’ that’s the problem, but ‘organized religion’, what’s usually called ‘denominalization’ (at least at this blog). Note, too, that the ‘spiritual’, ‘holy’, ‘faithful’ self-designations don’t necessarily distance themselves from ‘religion’, per se; rather, they distance themselves from specific denominations, especially within Christianity (which is especially clear with the ‘nones’, who don’t identify with a specific Christian denomination.

Ms Boorstein quotes liberal scholar Diana Butler Bass as saying/writing:
… the word “religion” is laden with negative, hurtful and political baggage. The 20 percent of Americans who now call themselves unaffiliated with any religious group see religion as much too focused on rules.
Note the ‘unaffiliated with any religious group’ statement; again, we see it’s not necessarily religion they’ve distanced themselves from, but denominations of religions.

Let’s take these one at a time; I’ll be using Christianity as my example, since it’s the religion I’m most familiar with, but I’m reasonably sure what I’m about to type is applicable to most, if not all, religions.

Negative, hurtful and political baggage.”

If you’ve actually read the Bible, one of the things you ought to notice is that there are a great many things in it which could easily be considered ‘negative’ and ‘hurtful’. The question is, why are these things ‘negative’ and ‘hurtful’? Certainly, Christianity has historically been used to bolster some evil doings – people keep reminding us of things such as the crusades, the Inquisition, the strife in Ireland, American slavery, and the like. But even when Christian teachings are used in a proper way (a way that is biblically sound) those teachings can and do cause feelings of hurt.

This is because human beings by nature are a contrary lot; they don’t like being told they can’t do things they want to do. Christian teachings call this humanity’s ‘inherent sinful nature’ (or something similar) – because we’re sinful from the get-go, we don’t like being told what to do; we’d rather ‘do our own thing’. Yet churches by and large have dropped the ball when it comes to teaching about and against sin; not only has the teaching taken a back seat, so has holding people accountable for their sins. So when homosexuality hit ‘the top of the charts’, the church’s response to it looked to be coming entirely out of the blue. The question became (and I’ve read it and heard it), ‘Why is homosexuality such a big problem? After all, the church isn’t doing anything about adulterers/divorced people/covetousness/any other sinful behaviors they know are happening in their churches.’

This same thing hit with the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that church-affiliated businesses provide abortion, sterilization, and contraception overage in their health insurance – the church (mainly the Roman Catholic Church) exploded into action, and the question arose, ‘How long has the church turned a blind eye on contraceptive users/abortion recipients until now?’

So the fault in these respects wasn’t with ‘religion’, it was with the ‘organized religion’ of the denominations of Christianity for not adhering to Bible teachings and not holding people accountable for their actions.

Why did this happen? Simple reason: telling people they’re sinful, that they must fight against sinning, and that they will have to give up extramarital sex and the like is almost a sure-fire way to drive people from the pews; people in the pews means collection money. So many churches adopted what I’ve called the ‘Care-Bear Jesus’ model and don’t mention sin at all (or, if they do, it’s talked about in a whisper). And this leads to the second thing Ms Bass mentions…

Rules, rules, and more rules.

Christianity has rules. If we were to sum them up, they might read as follows: Love God; believe in Christ; behave yourselves; when you screw up, ask for forgiveness and go back to behaving yourselves. Yes, I know that’s highly rudimentary, but it’s a reasonable framework.

In order to follow rules, you have to know the rules, right? How do you know the rules? Read your Bible – the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) is a good start; Paul’s letters expand on them. Unless you read them and find out what they are, and unless you’re inclined to follow them, they aren’t going to do you much good.

The big problem with religious rules is that they’re (by the definition above) a ‘moral code governing the conduct of human affairs’, and as I mentioned earlier, people aren’t all that accepting of rules which curb their desires. Curbing activities people find enjoyable, whatever they are, are seen as ‘hurtful’ and ‘negative’ by those who wish to not be governed by somebody else’s rules – instead, these people want to make their own rules to follow.

The church needs to both make these rules available and understandable and has to abide by them itself; if it doesn’t, it makes a poor role-model for both members and non-members. And this ends up being a Catch-22 situation for organized religion: if churches follow the rules, they cause hard feelings for those who don’t want to obey; if they don’t follow the rules, when push comes to shove (as in the case of the Affordable Care Act and homosexual marriage, among others), they end up looking hypocritical in the eyes of both members and non-members.

So the two problems Ms Bass indicates are problems of perception; on one hand people are rightly accusing organized religion of hypocrisy in some cases; on the other hand, the sinful nature of people makes them not want to abide by the rules. In order to avoid both the potential hypocrisy and all the rules, people distance themselves from the source of both and make their own faith-tradition, borrowing from organized religion and molding, twisting, bending, and deforming what’s been borrowed to fit the mold of their own preconceived notions, wants, and desires.

In short, they make their own idols.

Taken to mean what the dictionary says it means, ‘religion’ isn’t the problem; the perception, correct or incorrect, of organized religion is the problem. Folks aren’t leaving their ‘religion’, they’re leaving behind denominations and making up their own ‘religion’ – man-made religion, a.k.a. idolatry.

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