Monday, April 2, 2012

Organized Religion

Some time ago, I overhead two ladies making plans to visit some religious establishment - whether temple or mosque or church, I couldn't say.  I wasn't paying that much attention.  I did hear one of them speak of "organized religion" in what sounded like a dissatisfied tone.  It reminded me that many folks think of it as a bad thing.  And this puzzles me.  I don't doubt that bad or ineffectual stuff happens in and through organized religion.  But it strikes me that knocking organized religion as such is - with all due respect to those who do the knocking - kind of silly.

Folks who have any interest in religion at all would obviously agree that there is some value to it.  And that we seem to have some natural desire for it.  Of course, "it" takes many forms, but all strive for things that are in some sense holy or spiritual.  The naturalists and materialists among us might think that it's more of an infection or disorder (a la Freud) that we really should rid of ourselves of.  But those who take religious options as live options probably don't have a problem acknowledging that it's a natural impulse.  It's quite human.

Now humans also have a tendency (again, quite naturally) to organize themselves.  This is true on a lot of levels.  In our personal relationships, we settle into routines, establish traditions, regularly commemorate events.  It's quite common, and typically our relationships are better for it.  While routines can become ruts, traditions mindless, and celebrations empty, they are a very good thing when they work right.

The same is true of communities.  We pitch in on projects, we guard each other's backs, we share resources, knowledge, and skills.   Insofar as we hold common beliefs and embrace common values, we encourage each other.  Indeed, we'll hold each accountable to those shared values.  And just as individuals establish routines, traditions, and celebrations among themselves, so too do larger communities.  They may even establish, to good effect, institutions that span generations, that far outlive their creators.  They can go wrong, to be sure.  But they can also accomplish great good.  Again, this tendency to self-organize is a very human thing.  It's not just important - at times, it's downright essential.

Now put the two together.  What have you got?  The thing that many rail against.  They often do so for good reason.  But it shouldn't be because religion + organization is some kind of freak event, some mutation that is always and ever bad.

It's much better, I think, to say that organization can emerge for both good reasons and bad, and that it can be done well or badly.  So it's not a matter of ditching religion or organizations (of whatever level).  It's a matter of getting them right.