The Libelous Label of “Organized Religion”
Do you really believe in what you think you believe in? Do you really believe in what you say you believe in?
There were so many ways that I could begin this conversation, but I started with those two questions because of the Pope’s visit to the US and the articles Ive been reading recently about how people flock to see him and be blessed by him, and about how others have angrily protested the Vatican’s inaction regarding the implementation of stricter policies governing the handling of priests found guilty of sexual abuse. I was also thinking about someone I overheard in the pantry at my office, speaking to another person about how good his bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich was this morning, and laughing about how “bad” a Jew he was.
What does that even mean? I wonder if he has ever thought about what it means to be a “bad Jew”, about what the word “bad” means in that context, or even about what the word “Jew” means, in any context. These words could easily be replaced with “good” or “practicing” or “moderate” or “Muslim” or “Christian” or “Hindu”.
I’m a Catholic. I heart Jesus. If it wasn’t for him being born, I wouldn’t have gotten that PS3 for Christmas. Crap, it’s Lent…I should give up something important to me…OK, no green skittles for a week.
I’m a Muslim, but I loves me a cold beer every now and then. And that interest I’m collecting from those bonds I bought? I’m gonna take that to Vegas and let it ride.
Obviously I could continue on that thread for a while. I just find it strange, these labels we throw around all the time, terms that do little to define who we are and what we believe, even if the terms are meant to do just that – classify us into groups of “organized” “religion” that are supposed to unite those who claim to believe the same things. But do these labels really serve to unite us? Or do they just cram a bunch of people under a roof that is inherently fractious? And do not the walls supporting that roof divide us into separate rooms? And does not that roof obstruct our view of the heavens, where the history of our origins lie – the origins that unite us all?
Man, there are so many directions I can run with this, I don’t know where to start.
You may wonder why I quoted “organized” and “religion” separately. I just think that these words that we use to classify ourselves are thrown around far too often without any thought being given to what they actually mean. Good luck using a dictionary — I tried looking up “religion” online, and the results were incredibly diverse, and in many cases, stunning. Does religion have to be a collection of stories and verses that are carved in stone, and whose message we are obligated to embrace as a means of avoiding divine wrath? Why do so many people equate adherence to a specific set of doctrines with virtue? Why are we so eager to exalt our own beliefs as a singular, one-way path to salvation?
I believe that religion is a highly personal relationship between an individual and some other being, or force, or any other greater power or feeling that that individual chooses to acknowledge. I believe that an individual’s religion is the totality of his or her philosophies and feelings towards that being and the connection they have with it. In turn, I believe that this relationship is so unique that no two people in the world believe in and act out those beliefs in exactly the same way, and therefore, no two people have the same religion. For example, suppose there are two brothers who both call themselves Muslim and believe in the Qur’an as the source of divine knowledge. One brother believes that every word of the Qur’an, without exception, is divine, and he chooses to practice it as strictly and literally as he possibly can. The other brother uses the Qur’an as a guide to model his life after, but disagrees with a few aspects of it, or refuses to adhere to one or two codes of conduct (e.g. canon dictating how inheritance should be distributed amongst family members). By choosing to ignore or expressing doubt in even a single verse of a book that is supposed to be the preserved and complete word of God, he is actually expressing doubt in one of the most fundamental principles of Islam – that the Qur’an as a text is divine. That cannot be understated; something cannot be almost divine or partially divine, and by choosing to believe in 99% of a text claiming to be 100% divine, the second brother is implicitly rejecting that text’s central claim to divinity. And while it may seem that the doubt that the second brother harbors regarding one or two specific passages out of an entire text amounts to only a small fracture in his devotion to that text – in this case, a devotion on which piety is utterly dependant – a small fracture in a divine text is one through which the entire universe can pass. I believe that it would be wrong to say that the two brothers have the same religion, and that, one way or another, this example can be applied to us all.
Accordingly, if we all have a different religion, how can our religions be “organized”? I don’t think they can be, nor do I think we should strive to make them so. We do not all have to believe the same thing in order to be unified; on the contrary, I believe that such a philosophy inhibits unity by creating an us/them mentality. I have met so many people in my life who say that they were born into a religion, as if it was a genetic attribute, and people who claim to be a member of a religious organization yet openly admit to disagreeing with many aspects of that religion. If you do not believe in it, then it is not your religion. I think that if religion is merely something you affiliate yourself with rather than something you truly believe in, then you cannot honestly and conscientiously call yourself a practitioner of that religion. You can only be a practitioner of your own religion, because consciously or not, your practices – the very way that you live your life – are a reflection of what you believe, and what you believe is in fact your religion. Unity is not achieved through conformity, but rather by accepting and embracing each other’s individuality; ironically, our differences are the one thing that we all have in common.