1. There seems to be a tendency to use the terms 'religion' and 'church' interchangeably in ordinary conversation. I have some rather strong contradictory feelings about what these two words mean, and so it is important to me that the distinction between them is clearly drawn.
2. In a nutshell, I think that, in general, religion is very good and church is very bad. This essay will be an attempt to explain why I think so.
3. To make sure I am not too far off in my own connotations of the terms, let me paraphrase the dictionary definitions. Religion is described first as a belief about the existence of God, and secondarily as a specific system of belief, worship, or conduct. Church is described first as a building and secondarily as a body of worshipers in a particular, usually Christian, faith.
4. It is in these secondary usages that the two terms sort of merge in their meanings. So when we talk of the 'separation of church and state', for example, we aren't referring to the building, but instead to what we sometimes call 'organized religion'. Therein lies the key to the distinction I want to make.
5. To me, all the negativity that I see associated with 'church' is a result of the organization and not of the religion.
6. Religion is a belief about concepts that are unreached or maybe unreachable by science. As science has pushed out the boundary separating what we understand from what we don't understand, the newly acquired territory is often in dispute between religion and science. In Galileo's time, the dispute was over the Earth's position in the cosmos. Today there is the dispute over the origin of species.
7. I believe that it is not only common, but healthy and profoundly good for humans to ponder questions that are beyond our knowledge. The ability to do this sets us apart from other animals and is responsible for much of the nobility that we find in humankind.
8. The problem is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know that what we believe is true. Worse, even if we know something to be true, or, if in fact it is true whether we know it or not, there is no way to prove it to another person.
9. Let me elaborate on that last paragraph. I am very skeptical and think that it is nearly impossible to know much of anything. I only claim to know one thing and that is that I exist. I have some level of doubt about everything else. I am, however, aware that there are people who claim to know things based on their personal experiences and they may very well be right.
10. For example, there are people who claim to know that there are giant space craft flying around in our skies because they have seen them. In many of these cases, the people have no interest in telling anyone else about it for obvious reasons. If claims of this type are true, they would provide a good example of the difficulty of proof I mentioned earlier. There is no easy way to transfer the conviction from the mind of the witness to the mind of the person who didn't see the space craft.
11. Similarly, there are people who claim to have had a 'religious experience'. I use that term to include a wide variety of experiences, ranging from the visions, or reported encounters with God by the ancient prophets, to the Near Death Experiences (NDE) reported by contemporary people. It seems that there is no doubt in the mind of the person reporting such an experience that they now know something that is beyond the reach of science or of scientific examination.
12. I think that there is some non-zero probability that some of these claims are true, and that profound truths may have been revealed to these people that might be important for the rest of us to know, or at least to believe.
13. The problem is that our languages seem inadequate to allow us to transfer the knowledge from the person experiencing the revelation to any of the rest of us. As a result, the record of the experience that we get passed down to us through scriptures or whatever other path, is allegorical and cryptic and is a source of unending debate and controversy about what the actual truth is.
14. If a person has the opportunity to talk directly to a person who has had a religious experience, (unfortunately I have not) then it seems that by body language, behavioral changes, and other non-language communication, it is possible for another person to believe, or maybe even to know, that the other person knows something profound. Examples of this would be disciples or followers of people like Jesus, Mohammed, or Joseph Smith. A more modern example would be people close to one who had a NDE. Such followers seem to be convinced that the 'master' (i.e. the person who had the religious experience) knows some profound truth, but the followers really can't articulate, and thus know, exactly what that truth is.
15. That is the source of the problem I see with organized religions, or churches. Historically, religions are started by followers of someone who claims to have had religious experiences. The followers try to capture in language the profound truths that were supposedly revealed, and in the case of successful religious movements, these became the scriptures. Unfortunately, the scriptures are interpreted differently by different people and to prevent those differences from destroying the organization, creeds are established that supposedly capture the essential truths in order to remove any ambiguity.
16. This leads to the direct cause of the problem I see with organized religions. The organization typically requires that the adherents publicly declare their belief in their particular creed whether the adherents really comprehend the original profound truths or not. This sets up strong boundaries setting the adherents of each particular religious organization apart from those of other religious organizations. This tends to draw people of one persuasion together and to isolate them from people of different persuasions. The animosity and consequent strife caused by this separation has been a dominant force in some of the worst examples of inhumanity to man that have occurred throughout history.
17. Of course there is a benefit to the closeness and fellowship resulting from, or at least accommodated by, the drawing together of people confessing a common creed, but it isn't at all clear whether or not this benefit outweighs the enormous cost.
18. Any attempt to do the cost/benefit analysis of the organization of religious beliefs would be extremely difficult. On the positive side, there is the comfort that people derive from belonging to a church. I think, however, that people naturally seek out associations with others and that a bowling league, a Rotary Club, or a business enterprise provides the same sense of belonging without the xenophobic animosity. To be sure, people in bowling leagues or business enterprises set themselves up in competition against rival groups, but they don't have the attitude that they are somehow 'good', 'saved', 'holy', or 'chosen' while people in the rival group are 'bad', 'damned', 'infidels', or 'sinners'.
19. Another positive consequence of religious organization is the increased ability to provide benevolent services to needy people. Organization increases the power and effectiveness of almost any human endeavor. Of course, benevolent organizations don't need to be associated with any particular creed in order to be effective. On the negative side, missionaries, who ostensibly are only interested in benevolence, bring the attitude with them that the people they are trying to help are heathen sinners. I think that in many cases, this attitude caused more problems than the benevolence removed.
20. From the point of view from the inside of a religious group, the major benefit is the salvation of people's souls. Without the declared belief in the creed, a person will suffer eternal damnation and torment after death and so it is of utmost importance to convert non-believers for their own good. Or so the adherents say they believe. In order to assess this alleged benefit, many very difficult theological issues would have to be resolved. If, in fact any one religious sect were right on this issue, then it would obviously be the right thing for everyone to profess belief in that particular creed and abandon all the others. It's just that there is widespread disagreement on which particular sect has a corner on the truth.
21. So to sum up what can be said about the benefits of organized religion, you can make a case that organized religion is good for some individuals, and for some disadvantaged groups of people who receive benefits, and possibly in the much bigger picture, for the salvation of souls.
22. On the cost side of the cost/benefit analysis, things are much easier to quantify. If there were a measure of pain and suffering, such as agony-hours, or cumulative years of lost life, then it would be relatively straightforward to examine history and measure the pain and suffering caused by conflicts between religious organizations, or conflicts between other groups that are fomented or exacerbated by religious organizations.
23. I think the enormity of this pain and suffering is well known to everyone who has studied even a little history and we needn't even begin listing examples in this essay. From my own reading of history, the pain and suffering caused by religious organizations so far outweighs the benefits that I have characterized organized religion, in some of my other writing, as the greatest evil that has ever visited Earth.
24. On the other hand, I believe that religion, without the organization, is probably the best, most noble and beneficial set of ideas to which we can devote our thoughts. If we are fortunate enough to have had a religious experience of our own, then from what I can gather, the previous statement would go without saying. If we form our religious opinions by trying to discern the truths that are feebly and inadequately reported to us from people who have had such experiences, then I think we can maybe arrive at glimpses of the truth. But I think that in all cases, it is a dangerous mistake to try to convince someone else that any particular idea we have represents the absolute truth. And, horror of horrors, it is extremely dangerous and harmful to try to coerce another by force, intimidation, or indoctrination to believe a particular idea is true.Please send me an email with your comments.
©1999, 2003 Paul R. Martin, All rights reserved.