I have many times in my life questioned what it is about organized religion that can take such a hold on people. Why is it that so many in the world, Americans in particular perhaps but many others as well, particularly in the Middle East, adhere to faiths that, though in their essence may be benign, yet in their practice are so often unkind, uncompassionate, and even predatory? And although I may not have the academic authority to ask, I can at least inquire into such questions with a sense of history all my own. When I was a young man, I was a devout Catholic, and even spent seven years in a Catholic monastery. That was some fifty years ago now, and I have changed, I dare to say evolved, in my thinking about such things. And yet, just as one of many examples that could be given, when I read about a young person struggling with too often quoted Biblical passages, or with preaching from the pulpit that condemns him or her for being gay, I wonder yet again what hold religion can have on the human heart.
Of course, not all religions are necessarily heinous and reprobate. Some clearly fit into these descriptors, but others come off as more benign, or at least less condemnatory of those who do not hold to their putative truths. I will leave it to the reader to identify which religion might fall into these varying categories, and move on instead to the brief exploration I mention above as to why I believe it is that people so often cling to religion, good or bad.
One further clarification first, however, if I may. In discussing religion, I want to emphasize that I am speaking about the organization thereof, that is, the need to codify, to hierarchize, to set out dogma, teachings if you will, about what is considered good and bad, right and wrong, proper and improper in thought and behavior, as well as the apparent need to arrange, assemble, and marshal human communities that believe in and promulgate these tenets. This, after all, is what most religions deal with, is it not? What I am not doing is discussing (at this point anyway) whatever we might call the inner impulse to seek to understand the immutable and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions of the universe, such as life, death, meaning, love, cruelty, sickness and suffering, or who if anyone made the universe and for what purpose, and whether or not there exists a Supreme Being, who in some way, either directly or indirectly, interacts with fallible human beings. For better or for worse, all this lies these days more often within the domain of science, philosophy, or mysticism, than in that of organized religion.
So, back then to my original query: what is it about the organization of religion that exerts such a gravitational pull on so many human beings?
Perhaps surprisingly, the first and the most common reason is simple indolence. By that I mean that an individual is brought up in a particular religion that she or he has learned from the very beginning. Most everyone that person knows belongs to that same religion, and so what else ought he or she to do? Such people stay in the religion of their birth not so much out of strong conviction, but because it is what they know, the whole thing seems to have been given to them in some sort of set and preordained way, and why not just stick with what you know? After all, it’s just a matter of going to the church or the temple or the mosque on the appointed day, or whatever the house of worship may be called (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “church” throughout, although we understand it can be applied more widely), sitting passively and listening, or allowing one’s mind to wander freely, and then going home afterward, feeling a vague sense that one has done one’s duty. Even so, it’s somehow thought to be an important duty, and others in the community would think less of them if the rituals were not properly performed.
The second reason is, simply, fear. Some individuals are convinced that, if certain ceremonies are not performed in the prescribed way, and if specific dogmas and beliefs are not adhered to closely, then something terrible will befall them in this life; or worse, that just and awful punishment will be meted out to them in the next life. And so, they go to church in order to hedge their bets, and in an attempt to ward off what is sometimes called their “just deserts,” if they were not to do so.
A third, and ancillary, reason added to one and two above is the need for reinforcement of belief. This pertains to people who in the secret enclave of their hearts are either not sure of their own beliefs, or who are themselves fearful of not being capable of toeing the line on their own. As a result, they need the company of a congregation of watchful co-religionists in order to sustain and reinforce belief in the received dogma. Without that societal fortification and bolstering, they understand they might lose interest and fall entirely away.
But with number four, we come closest to seeing why it is that organized religion so often appears rigid, overbearing, and condemnatory. Here we meet those who can be called “the true believers,” that is, those who are convinced to the marrow of their bones concerning the rectitude of the preachings of their religion, and of the common interpretation of those preachings by prominent practitioners and leaders of the faith. This, too, goes hand in hand with a belief in the unerring and literal veracity of every word found in the “holy book” of the religion, or the infallibility of the exalted leaders of the faith. These are the people who rail against sinners and apostates, who condemn to hell anyone who does not follow their particular take on religion, who attempt to get their narrow dogma imposed as the law of the land, and who in so doing cause no end of unnecessary suffering to so many. Just as one example, think of the various roles the Roman Catholic Church, and any number of Protestant Evangelical Churches, to say nothing of Sharia Law, have played, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, in condemning and blocking same sex marriage, and gay rights generally, over the last several years.
Again, I will say that not every religion is oppressive and denunciatory. Neither is every religious adherent filled with censure, vilification, and disapproval. There are some who are willing to allow others who don’t hold to the tenets of their faith to live according to their own lights, and who do not wish to impose their view of the world on everyone in the world. There are even a few who seem capable of using the symbols and teachings of their particular religious traditions in ways that stimulate and advance personal piety, as well as love and acceptance of other human beings. But, in my experience, these are the few, rather than the many.
So, what to do, if you are among those who eschew organized religion? Not to worry. Either ignore dogmatic faiths entirely, and lead your life in as naturally moral and loving a way as possible, forgetting for now things supernatural, but living the best and most honorable life you can. Or, if you are like myself and find that you are still drawn to an understanding and even a hoped-for connection with what can only be called the Supreme Unknowable, then find your own way! Do not wait for priests, or preachers, or mullahs to lead you; do not rely on teachings and dogma. Go within and discover for yourself. After all, even for those who follow more traditional paths, the seeker must ultimately learn to transcend all stories and images, leave behind all saints and depictions of the divine, indeed, all qualities and thought, and find for him or herself what cannot be found, but what – after long search and hard work — in the end can only be called the great Gift of Enlightenment.