Saturday, 13 June 2015
“I’ve got no problem with religion or spirituality; it’s organised religion that I hate.”
This, or a close variation on the theme, is something I’ve heard or read frequently, and I can perfectly understand the sentiment. After all, it’s religious institutions of various sorts and their hierarchies that have been responsible for inquisitions and persecutions, crusades, abuse scandals and cover-ups, politicking, back-biting, corruption, inefficiency, and the manipulation, exploitation and oppression of the poor, vulnerable and credulous. It’s not a great record when viewed from that perspective.
However, it will no doubt not surprise you much to discover that although I can understand it, it is not a sentiment that I agree with. If you are totally opposed to all religion or spirituality, then I will think that you are wrong, but I will accept that that is your position. However, to me, saying that you’re in favour of religion, but not organised religion is the same as saying that you’re in favour of medicine, just not hospitals. It’s like saying that you like singing but hate choirs, love music but loathe orchestras, think that children should get out more but oppose the Boy Scouts, or think that science is great but that scientists should do their science at home, in isolation from each other. The possible analogies are almost endless.
After all, medicine has had its murdering doctors and sex attackers; the NHS is ponderous and inefficient, and plagued by cases of bullying, abuse and corruption that couldn’t have occurred in a series of unconnected clinics and practices. Plenty of choir masters, scout leaders, and teachers have been found guilty of neglect and outright abuse, often of the most shocking kinds. Even such benevolent organisations as Alcoholics Anonymous has seen cases of assault and abuse from ‘sponsors’ towards their charges and the last couple of weeks have shown that organised sport is riddled with bribery and corruption that couldn’t have occurred if people just played football in the local park and left it at that. I used to be a member of a large battle re-enactment society, and the politicking and back-biting at every level from the top all the way down dismayed and discouraged me.
I know I’m at risk of drifting into hyperbole and straw man-ism here. Some things of course are not improved by organisation; crime for example (although the criminals may disagree) and after all, an opposition to ‘organised religion’ isn’t necessarily an opposition to what Wesley referred to as ‘social religion’. Surely Christians can get together and do their thing in a group without being ‘organised’? But can they really? After all, doing a thing socially means doing it within a society, and societies can only function through a set of mutually agreed rules. In society in the widest and most general sense, these rules and conventions have developed and solidified over time, and various natural and artificial mechanisms are in place to enforce them. In societies in the more specific sense, these rules must be set out and agreed and then enforced, to allow the society to perform the function for which it was gathered.
Who sets out these rules? Who enforces them? If fifty or a hundred Christians (or any other group for that matter) wish to gather together, they will have to hire a building (or at least arrange for a large marquee). How is it paid for, and by whom? Who’s in charge or arranging the place and time, and letting everyone know? Who, if anyone will start or chair the proceedings, and how will they be chosen? Who will make the tea afterwards, and who will clear up and put the chairs away?
An individual can buy food for the homeless, but it requires an organisation to run a soup kitchen. An individual can teach a few illiterate children, but an organisation is needed to build a school. I can sing to myself in the shower (although my wife prefers me not to), but it takes a whole congregation to really do justice to ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’.
“Whenever two are gathered in my name, there I will be”, but three is a crowd. Four is a society, and society must have some level of organisation. As the society grows, organisation becomes hierarchy, with implicit levels of authority. With authority and hierarchy and increasing size come inflexibility, inefficiency and the potential for abuse and manipulation. People, being people, will always fall to politicking and scheming, with ambitious individuals seeking to rise to positions of importance and see their rivals fail. Intra-societal politics and back-biting will lead to cliques and factions, maybe even schisms and splits, hurt, hatred and recrimination.
No group or society is free of this tendency, as I have found time after time throughout my life. The problems with organised religion are merely the problems of organised anything else, and that's not organisation per se, but human nature. If only we could have the former unaffected by the latter, I’m sure it would be fine. It is the great shame of the Church that it is as bad as any other large organisation, if not worse, when it is the very one that ought to be better. The very things that ought to, and often do, make the Church such a wonderful and powerful motivating and mobilising force for good in the world are the very things that make it such a potent and virulent force for evil when they are inevitably misused. As with the vast majority of things about religion, organised or otherwise, that its opponents rail at, the problem isn’t religion; it’s people. As Chesterton said, “The only truly unanswerable argument against Christianity is the Christians”.
This is undeniably true, but to quote John Wesley “You must find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”
A soloist can be good, but they are nothing like a choir. A lone musician can be wonderful, but they are always better when they are accompanied. Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread, and if we are sometimes far less than we ought to be, when we are together and organised we are still greater than the sum of our parts.