But do not therefore attribute to the Masters and Prophets the evil deeds of their followers. If the priests, teachers and people, lead lives which are contrary to the religion they profess to follow, is that the fault of Christ or the other Teachers? – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 41.
Countless people today feel the importance of spirituality in their lives, but remain uncommitted to any specific faith tradition.
For a great many of them, the reason is the same: they do not believe in organized religion. They don’t necessarily reject the teachings of historical figures like Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammad–quite the contrary. Instead, they understand that once the spiritual paths those great teachers represent become institutionalized, they start to lose their power to enlighten souls and instead become tools for violence, exploitation, and fame.
It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny that. In fact, much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence. This passage from the Baha’i teachings describes the pattern and the problem in a brief but powerful analysis:
…the foundation of all religion is brotherhood, comradeship and friendship to all. But alas, a thousand times alas! Religion, which should serve to promote oneness and love among men, has become an instrument of animosity and hatred. Religion, which was established to build up and gladden hearts, has become a means of darkening the world. All the prophets appeared that oneness of men might be taught. How much suffering these prophets had to endure to unfold this illumination among men. His Holiness Jesus Christ offered His life. He endured the greatest humiliation; His head was crowned with a crown of thorns. He endured all things so that the world might again unite and that He might cement the hearts of men through His love. But today the first duties of religion are neglected. The first duty and the basis of each religion is the love of God. Love has vanished and hate and animosity have taken its place. Instead of these simple principles we now have dogmas and imitations, and because the dogmas and imitations differ we have constantly strife and war. Fanaticism is the only aim. These fanatics are actually thirsty for their brother’s blood, they condemned one another and considered each other unclean. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, p. 156.
So what should we do about organized religion? First, we need to decide what to make of religion itself. If you don’t believe in God, the soul, or other such things, then the solution is clear enough: Just reject all of it, whether organized or not, and move on with your life. After seeing the hypocrisy in much of organized religion, many people have done exactly that.
However, things get a little trickier if you believe there is something to religion, something deeply important to us during our stay upon this earth. What follows I address primarily to this second group of people. I want to reframe the problem, by suggesting that what religion needs is the right kind of organization, rather than an abolition of all organization per se. Religion may need more organization, not less, to hold on to its authentic spiritual core–and not be co-opted by those who would distort it for their own corrupt purposes.
How does a religion that stresses compassion, tolerance, and enlightenment gradually get corrupted? How does it get misshapen into a state ideology for powerful, violent and oppressive empires? Here’s a partial answer: at an important crossroads in its growth and evolution, those who represented that particular Faith’s original spirit of love and compassion did not have enough influence to counteract the all-too-human trends toward institutionalization–which made it easier for the rich and powerful to manipulate it for their own ends.
At that crucial juncture, a rising tide of power struggles and rigid formulas overwhelmed the true, original spirit of the religion, and gradually marginalized that spirit until it became little more than a memory. This process has occurred over and over, throughout history, to most of the world’s great Faiths. Given that framework, the next question becomes obvious–how can the true spirit of a religion perpetuate itself from century to century and protect itself from the corrosive influence of wealth and power?
In the second and final part of this essay, we’ll explore that critical issue.