Sunday, September 20, 2015

Organized religion: the DNA of civilization

Think back over the thousands of years of human history, over the continents that circle the globe. Think of all the hunter-gatherer tribes, all the early human settlements. Think of the rise of actual cohesive cultures and civilizations. Egypt, India, China ... each had its own beginnings of formal, organized religion. Babylon ... with the Code of Hammurabi. Ancient Israel, ancient Persia. The various "golden ages" of civilizations in the thousands of years since then have generally been united by an organized religion. Organized religion is the DNA that forms a civilization and keeps it coherent from one generation to the next.

For a people to be united enough to create something that endures, it is necessary to go beyond the everyday concerns, the divisive quarreling, and the self-destructive foolishness that so often describe human life, and to instead reach for something unifying and something enduring. Organized religion plays a civilizing role for the individual people; it also forms the people into united cultures. Religion shapes them by its sense of wisdom or purity or holiness or brotherly love, and encourages them to higher goals than they might think of by themselves. The general common experience of those who participate in organized religion is that it expands our horizons and enriches our lives. And when a religion becomes prevalent enough in a certain time and place, when it has the peoples' devotion and imagination, a united culture arises. When peoples' commitment to its vision of justice or beauty or wisdom or brotherhood are worked out in that many lives, these cultures make enduring achievements, and are remembered with respect.

For a thriving culture to form, it is not only necessary to have laws -- a code of right and wrong and social rules -- but it is also necessary that people generally agree on them. It is not enough to have laws when the people in power merely impose those laws on the rest; that's simply oppression. It is not enough that the ruling class has certain values and goals which are mandated to the peasants or workers; it is necessary for those workers to share those values, to take up the mantle willingly. The religion shapes the culture, what it can attain, what it can achieve, what it values. The culture in turn may give a certain shape to the religion: the Christianity of Russia and Italy show how beauty and art and scholarship can take different directions. The Catholicism of Mexico has a flavor of its own. The history of the world has shown that organized religion has enough breathing room for each culture to make it their own. And so while a culture or a golden age may be proud of its religion, a religion may in turn be proud of its cultures and golden ages.

For a culture to hold together across the generations, it is necessary that something should continue to unite it, and inspire it, and shape its identity. In the modern U.S.A., we are taught to despise organized religion -- usually by people who show no understanding of its benefits, and who make arguments that could as easily be applied to (say) organized government or (in some cases) organized education. While I hope our culture can be renewed or rekindled, there is a consolation for whenever the time comes for it to fall: the mechanism for teaching such hatred of religion will, given time, likewise fall. And after that hatred has gone, it is the achievements of the golden ages that will stand the test of time.


Aron Wall said...

Good point! Of course, a lot of people just use this phrase "organized religion" to mean any religious group which actually tells people what to do... It's similar to this phrase "spiritual but not religious".

Anytime people really start caring about anything, they'll start forming societies and organizations about that thing. My wife loves quilting, so she goes to quilting societies to share knowledge and resources. "Organized religion" is simply caring enough about religion to involve other people.

Weekend Fisher said...

I had somebody throw "organized religion" at me this weekend and I used the usual quip, "We're not that organized, no worries" but I was thinking about his knee-jerk reaction. Context of his remark: we were out together volunteering at a community garden. Afterwards, the "don't like organized religion" guy was driving the day's harvest over to the church which will distribute it. I don't know if the irony caught him or not, that it was "organized religion" that provided his own volunteer gardening with a way to reach the poor.

What you said about "spiritual but not religious" -- I've been waiting for a chance to say, "I'm not really 'spiritual', I'm religious" (which ok I count as religious is "spiritual+", but the people who use the word the other way *don't*). Thought if the right opportunity came up, it would be a good opportunity to say, "religious ... it's not so much a private thing as I try to live it out in a way that benefits my neighbor ..."

Good to see you again.

Take care & God bless

Martin LaBar said...

We need Christ. We need religion, too.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Spiritual blessings are mediated through Christ; earthly blessings are mediated through earthly means, and organized religion is a vital one. Organized religion shields against some of the "ordinary evil" to which we have become so accustomed, and reduces it. The decline of organized religion in our times has had ripple-effects in a declining quality of family life, social life, and cultural life. When organized religion is missing as a constructive force, there is a human cost: first broken homes and fatherless children, which in turn contribute to higher poverty, worse educational outcomes and higher crime; in turn those worsen the problem for the next generation. When we do not rebuild organized religion as a constructive force, we have a share in worsening the problem of evil in this world.

"Can't we do things as individuals?" Of course we do; yet it takes enough of us doing those things together to make a difference on a large scale.

Hm, that was almost a separate post. Glad you brought it up, apparently I had some things that needed saying there.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF