Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Is Wrong with Organized Religion?

"I am against organized religion." This is a common statement heard today. Even many Christians state they are against religion. What is religion, and should we be for or against it? The simplest answer is that in most contexts it has no useful substantive meaning.  If you do not believe me, try to come up with one that covers the things normally classified under it. "Organized" is easier to define, but can be hard to apply.  Different beliefs  have different degrees of organization, depending on their character. But I suspect that in this context the main meaning of "organized religion" is serious religion.When people get serious about something, whether saving the environment or playing cards, they tend to organize. I suspect much of the opposition to organized religion amounts to: We don't care what you believe, but don't try to seriously promote it. What is this thing people do not want to see promoted? 

Could "religion" be belief in God? If God means any kind of deity, many "nonreligious" philosophers  have believed in a God (Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, and others). But some called "religious" were indifferent to the idea (Confucius and Buddha; whether Lao Tzu is included depends on whether you regard the Tao as a God or not).  Could "religion" be defined as the belief in a God who objectively intervenes in history or gives objective revelation? But those from a theologically liberal Judeo-Christian position would deny this. One could try to get around this by enlarging the definition to include purely subjective revelation from God.  But if revelation is purely subjective, how do I identify it? Is the issue whether this subjective experience has the word "God" associated with it?. But if the word "God" has no objective content, what does it really mean? Also, there are those who come from this position who use "religion" (negatively) to describe only those who hold to the objective intervention of God. Among Christians, "religion" can be seen as a practice of rules and rituals rather then the direct approach to God through grace. (I like the formulation of this that pictures "religion" as man seeking God and Christianity as God seeking man.)  But this is a specialized meaning, and while it may be useful to made a point, it does not fit as standard usage.

Now we could simply rearrange the players to fit some new definition, but what basis would we have for regarding this as the right definition? Especially since this probably would result in a major rearrangement.  Is it then surprising that "religion" has become a term useful for stereotyping whatever you like or dislike? And it becomes something that is hard to argue for or against because it is as slippery as a snake to define. I would therefore suggest that while the word will undoubtedly continue in popular usage, it is of no benefit in serious discussion. It is best to deal in terms of what you and another person really believe rather than to go off on a rabbit trail about "religion".


  1. A most interesting post. You've given somethings to think about concerning the word "religion". Thank you :-)

  2. Every once in a while I like to challenge people's assumptions. Sometimes it is necessary to get people to think.