Organised religion – do we really need it?

I went to Mass the other weekend, the first time for a while. It was my late father-in-law’s Name Day, and as is usually the case my mother-in-law paid for a dedication to him, and of course we are expected to attend. I hadn’t been to the last few (for different reasons) but nothing had changed. The dedication was mumbled at the start of the Mass, together with similar messages for a couple of other deceased, and sitting at the back I hardly heard it. My mind drifted throughout the Mass, as I knelt and stood and sat when required, basically following everyone else (as I don’t speak Polish), reflecting on religion and what it means to me. I was miles away when I was snapped back to reality at the Sign of Peace moment, with its round of embarrassed handshakes and mumbled blessings. As usual I felt uncomfortable. The Mass ended soon after and I was still deep in thought as we left.

You see the thing is, it seems to me that talk of Peace and Faith make for uncomfortable bedfellows – at least when it comes to organised religion. Historically the number of people, mostly innocents simply trying to live and raise their kids, that have lost their lives in the name of one Faith or another is beyond count. In the earliest days of Christianity, for instance, believers were crucified, tortured, fed to the lions by the Romans for professing their new found faith in One God instead of following the Roman pantheon of gods, and as purely entertainment.

Then you have the Crusades, costing hundreds of thousands more Christian and Muslim lives, for no definitive result in the conflict. Schisms in the Catholic faith resulting in the Orthodox Church and then, later, the Church of England – more lives lost. The formation of Non-Conformist faiths like the Baptists, Lutheran and so on after Martin Luther’s breakaway, the Catholic Spanish Inquisition, even the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the 1970s to 1998 all cost thousands of lives for often questionable reasons and little material gain for anyone. Arguably the Islamic Fundamentalists wreaking havoc since 9/11 up to today (the Moscow theatre atrocity the most recent example) and the Zionist campaign against Palestinian Arabs are religious disputes that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and will undoubtedly cost many more in the unknowable future.

It seems to me that whenever a religion attains a relatively high level of acceptance it immediately insists on considering itself pre-eminent, the One True Faith (or similar delusional title) and, whether by design or accident, foments trouble with other, equally delusional, Faiths. No offence is meant here, and I apologise if these comments have done just that, but it seems inconceivable (thus delusional) that one Faith, whatever it is, no matter how many followers it has, can ever be considered more important or better than all the rest. Given humanity’s violent nature (we are the only species that kills for pleasure: even the most vicious predator only kills for food or for self defence) it seems to me the grossest act of hubris to do so. And yet, time and again it has happened and no doubt will again.

For myself, I was born and Christened into the Church of England, but never attained Confirmation (despite attending Sunday School every week through my childhood). In my teens, I joined the local Boys’ Brigade company, for no better reason than some of my mates did. It held its meetings at the hall of the local Baptist Church so as night follows day I stopped attending church in favour of chapel. It suited me: much more relaxed and less dogmatic, no special robes for the minister unless he was baptising someone in the pit, when he donned high waders and a plain, unadorned white gown over his usual dark grey suit, white shirt and tie. I attended regualrly until I was 19 when the minister helped me cope with my father’s death (I had no idea what I needed to do legally, registration of death and all that, and my mum and sisters were in no fit state to do anything) even though he knew he would have no part to play in the funeral and didn’t even know the rest of my family. I am forever grateful.

After that, fuelled by grief, too much beer and way too much scotch, I drifted away from all religion. Why would a compassionate God of Love let a man as wonderful as my father die so young, in his prime (he was 56), and leave a family so bereft, I raged, and no-one was able to answer me adequately – not even my mum’s cousin, a very good and well respected Anglican vicar.

Eventually. I got through it, and for the past near 50 years, through two marriages and five kids, have been more used to Roman Catholicism (but still with no personal commitment). Both my wives are Catholic, and on my first marriage I reluctantly signed a paprer, presented to me by the parish priest, committing to raise any offspring as Catholics – he would have refused to marry us if I had refused. I was not comfortable doing so, but had little choice. So my three sons were duly Christened and Confrmed into the Faith, took their Confirmation Names and served as altar boys. They also, in due course, drifted away from the Church. From my second marriage, again to a Catholic lady, our kids were Christened and Confirmed thus, and are equally, now in their teens, drifting away.

All of them, and I stress without my encouragement or any parental pressure, have independently come to the view that organised religion has no personal relevance to them. Sure, they believe in something that equates to a God, and behave, by and large, in a “Christian manner” and in due time will become model citizens and parents (two already have) giving their kids a decent, moral upbringing. As I and my spouses did, they have formed (or will form) their own family codes and beliefs that work for them and their families and, though influenced by a religious faith, some kind of belief in a God, will not follow any specific code. Or not – it will be their choice and theirs alone, to accept the consequences

My life experience suggests that most religions have similar beliefs, at their core: a God, Eternal Salvation in some form, Forgiveness of Sin required to enable entry to some mysterious and unknowable Afterlife. The differences are largely those of wording, of costume and ritual, of morals – sex before marriage accepted or not, priestly marriage allowed or not, lifelong chastity demanded or not – and so on. With so many options, how are we, the average human, supposed to know which are right and which nonsense, which to follow and which to disavow?

It seems to me that this is not for the church, any church, to force upon its congregation. An example: most people would accept that the abuse of children, whether physical or mental, is simply wrong. And yet for years abuse of children was routinely carried out by priests and nuns, sworn to protect the innocent and supposedly carrying out vows of lifelong chastity and service to God. Frequently the children, boys and girls, were orphaned and helpless, and the evil was covered up by the Catholic Church, and any lay Catholic instructed to ignore or deny the claims. It is still happening, and still not adequately investigated, and the abusers inadequately punished (if at all).

That may be an extreme example. Here is another that suggests the rules and morals imposed by some faiths are, to put it mildly, a little strange. In many faiths, ministers are allowed, even encouraged, to marry and have their own families, living normal lives, the better to undertand the needs of normal people. My friendly Baptist minister was married with three kids, my cousin the vicar married late in life and had no kids – and I would argue both were as a result better able to administer to the spiritual needs of their parishioners than the elderly priest who gave my first wife and I an hour long lecture on why the pleasures of the flesh were evil and obscene, and only done to produce more children for the Faith and under no circumstance to be enjoyed, for that way lay Hell……

So over the years, faced with all these competing Churches insisting that theirs is the right way and only True Way, no matter the differences or similarities, all these religions causing pain and suffering in the name of an allegedly benevolent God of Love for hundreds, even thousands of years, I’ve come to the conclusion (and not reluctantly…) that much of the world’s ills stem from the very presence of organised religion. Perhaps it’s time we, as a species, turned away from being forced in childhood to follow this or that set of beliefs and rituals (depending on where we are born and raised), and instead given some instruction on all of them – and encouraged to think and compare and form our individual, personal set of beliefs and morals and values, ones that suit us and help us live fulfilling lives, peaceful and loving lives. I’m probably being terribly simple minded but still…perhaps it might work?

This essentially is what I have done, without any real guidance and certainly no force applied against me by anyone, and it’s left me now, at 71, with a set of beliefs that I (and I hope and beieve my family) can accept. I will not go into details, since they are my personal beliefs – thus by definition mine alone – and I have no doubt a lot of people will neither understand nor accept their validity. Maybe one day I’ll come clean, for there is nothing in them to be ashamed of, nothing likely to cause pain or harm to anyone, and certainly not making any threats of divine retribution in case of disagreement! But I am comfortable with them, I can (and do) live a perfectly normal, happy and active life, even a respectable one, surrounded by loving friends and family (and no enemies that I’m aware of). I at least am at peace, and that surely is a Good Thing.

Perhaps it really is a better way to live. Perhaps if more people tried the same approach, over time a difference, a more peaceful society, could be the result? Or perhaps I am just a silly old fool with but a loose grip on the realities of 21st centruy living (which I probably am anyway). But I would rather be optimistic than pessimistic, and if defining my own quasi-religious belief system gives me that, then surely that too is a Good Thing?

What do YOU think?

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  1. Bob, this is a very well written piece and as is usually the case with your blogs an intimate offering of your personal history and a thought-provoking read for us, your audience. I want to respond to this poignant question as to whether organized religion serves any useful purpose in contemporary society, but I anticipate that my comment here would end up article length. So for that reason I have decided to write my response to this fine article of yours in my blog and post it sometime today. Thank you Bob for having the courage to share your thoughts on topics like this and to offer others like me the opportunity to actually discuss matters as important as this one in a public forum.
    My blog is at:

  2. A wonderful article I must say. Read it independently before reading it again on Dale’s blog 🙂 As far as religion is concerned, I have never really believed in organized religion. Though born a Hindu, I have practiced Christianity and Buddhism during different phases of my life. At present I guess I am a bit into everything. It also helps that my country is multi-religious and therefore we get a taste of everything. But all said and done. I believe that sinner spirituality means a lot more than organized religion. 🙂

    1. Yes, “sinner spirituality means a lot more than organized religion” I agree. And I’m finding that probably, in another life, I was a daoist 🙂 . These days, I try to listen to my heart in all things.

  3. Hi Bob
    Very good article which i enjoyed a lot. I agree it is all personal choice and some people like the discipline of Organised religion to see them through the day. But it is not for everyone. I like you was brought up in a Religion (Catholic) but i go to church when i want not to a set pattern.
    I try to be kind and considerate to my friends and acquaintances, doesn’t always works but I do my best.
    Keep them coming Bob and speak soon


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