Why Organized Religion?
(The following is a response I wrote for the Curmudgeons group. We were looking at an article about the notable decline in church and synagogue attendence and affiliation even among nominal Evangelicals. Some of the comments noted that we do not or should not need religious institutions to tell us to follow the Golden Rule. This is my response to them.)
I have spent my working life in the organized religion field, so I have quite a bit to say on this.
My religious tradition, Judaism, differs from the other two Abrahamic faiths in that we do not proselytize, as both Islam and Christianity do. One way to express this is what we call the Noahide Covenant. This involves seven laws which apply to the Children of Noah, i.e., all of humanity. Here are those seven commandments.
- Do not deny God.
- Do not curse God.
- Do not murder.
- Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
- Do not steal.
- Do not eat from a live animal.
- Establish courts/legal system.
There is almost no theology here except for the existence of one God and the prohibition against cursing God. Three other laws prohibit harmful behavior among human beings. One prohibits cruelty to animals. One, the only positive one, is that there must be a system to ensure social justice. These are the only rules incumbent on human beings in order to get a reward in the Next World. There is nothing about religion, let alone organized religion. God does not care what you believe, where or how you worship or what you eat. Therefore there is no reason to try to convert nonbelievers or even have a religion.
There is a story in the Talmud about this. Over 2000 years ago the Jewish people were led by two men who were opposite each other – Hillel and Shammai. Hillel was generally lenient and Shammai was strict. Hillel was known for his calm temperament and Shammai was known for his short temper. There are several stories about them of which this is the most famous. A non-Jew wanted to test Shammai and Hillel. He went to Shammai and said, “I will become a Jew if you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai struck the man with his walking cane and drove him off. Then this man approached Hillel with the same request. Hillel told him to stand on one foot, which the non-Jew did. Hillel said, “Do not do to another what you would not want them to do to you. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”
People do not need religion or theology to tell us we should not hurt other people. Those who say all they need is the Golden Rule are basically right. There are long explanations and arguments about how this is so, both in religion and philosophy. How for example do “secular humanists” argue for ethical behavior? (BTW I knew the man who coined that term – Leo Pfeffer – and it was in a note to an amicus curii argument before SCOTUS and was meant to describe people who uphold ethics but not religion – it is not actually a movement).
The truth is that I share just about every criticism about organized institutional religion you could possibly come up with. When I first decided I wanted to be a rabbi I was sixteen and the people in my life I most admired were rabbis. When I was in college I spoke with my congregational rabbi about becoming a rabbi. His response was to lay out for me many of the difficulties of being in the pulpit. The summer before my last undergraduate year I worked at a summer camp where many rabbis served as faculty and staff. I interviewed just about all of them. When I started that last year I first applied and then withdrew my application to rabbinic school. However, also in that year I reconnected with a very remarkable rabbi and went to study under him in Canada out of a desire for spiritual experience. He told me he understood my doubts about the pulpit but I should get through rabbinic school and then I could do the pulpit my way (not at all how it turned out, but that’s another part of this story). I applied to two schools and was rejected at both (those stories are amusing but too long for here). I went back to Chicago and became a social worker, but I took a battery of college-level vocational tests and the counsellor there told me I should be a rabbi. I reapplied to one of those schools and was accepted. I entered rabbinic school in the fall of 1968 and (surprise! surprise!) was part of a class dertermined to revolutionize the pulpit. Now, almost half a century later, add to that an entire career in which I saw and experienced everything wrong with organized religion. I have done my best to make the pulpit a position to help people grow, deal with life’s pains, and free minds.
So what is organized religion good for? Why is there such a thing? What good does it do, despite all the negatives?
WE WANT ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS. We are the only species (most likely) that knows we are going to die. This leads to some very big questions. Why are we here (or Why did God create us?)? When I first began as a teacher’s aid in religious school I heard a second grader ask that question and understood how universal it is. Why do we die? is death the end of our existence? Why should we be good? Why is there suffering in the world? How did the world begin and why does it exist? How will the world end or will it end? These questions all have philosophical terms – ontology, teleology, theodicy, etiology, eschatology, etc. However one does not need to be a philosopher to ask these questions. For many people specific answers to the questions are wanted in order to face our mortality. There is actually a theory that religion is the result of a survival mechanism that allows us to know we will die but life is worth living.
THE NEED TO MARK THE PASSAGE OF TIME – Part of what gives meaning to our lives is that we sense the passage of time, both cyclical and linear. There is a monthly cycle shown by the moon and an annual cycle which is solar but observed in the changes of seasons. We note the changes in seasons (except the Muslim calendar but that would take a longer explanation). Linear time is from beginning to end of a life or of the universe. We mark passages in life – birth, puberty, marriage, childbirth, death. About these things we are ambivalent. We have rituals that mark the passage of time and we have customs to deal with our anxieties about the passage of time.
THE NEED FOR COMMUNITY – Religious institutions, including houses of worship, are places where communities are formed. There are three names for synagogue in Hebrew – House of Meeting, House of Prayer, House of Study. The one most used means House of Meeting (which is what the Greek-derived word “synagogue” means). For many Americans today the congregation serves as an alternate extended family.
THE NEED TO DO GOOD IN THE WORLD – We all have selfish instincts that we could not live without, but anyone guided by such instincts alone will not be a very good person. We also have in our basic makeup the need to connect with other people and do good. Both of these instincts are hardwired in our brains. Competition and co-operation are both basic human survival instincts.
All of these functions can be served without organized religion or any religion at all. Congregations, at their best, provide for these basic human needs. That fewer people are joining congregations may have several explanations. Other institutions may be serving the purpose (social media?). The organizational model for congregations may no longer be meeting the above-listed needs. There may be a breakdown in our social need to share and co-operate created by a culture that promotes selfishness or self-interest. That is a very big subject. There are many ongoing projects working on redefining the congregation and how it functions.
I tried over these past decades to make use of my work to help people deal with life’s reverses; to urge them to be better people; to free their minds (Jewish tradition, encourages questioning), to inspire them to take a role in making life better for other people. I was very good at all the pulpit skills but still had to deal with the many needs of the people in my communities. It was often difficult and stressful (as my rabbi warned), but I feel I have led a worthwhile life doing worthwhile work. For all my skepticism about organized religion, which is still very much a part of my thinking, I hope I have used this institution for good.
I agree both with those who see no purpose for organized religion and those who see it as a necessity in their lives.