• Alex Ahlstrom

In Defense of Institutionalized Religion

The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, conducted in 2016, found that nearly 59% of millennials considered themselves “unaffiliated” or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. Religion is one of the oldest human institutions. Before humanity began gathering in cities, or organizing complex social structures they were already experimenting with forms of systematized spirituality. Religion, especially institutionalized religion, has been so ubiquitous throughout history that its implications have reached far beyond questions of God or spirituality into almost all aspects of human life. Looking at these historic norms and modern trends begs two important questions; why are people religious and why is being religious still important?

Stop Oversimplifying It

A common misconception is that religion is some form of psychological crutch used by weak minded people to overcome the reality of their own existence; that somehow religion was born out of some prehistoric child’s question as to where daddy went, and when prehistoric mom couldn’t bring herself to say he fell off a glacier, she invented a spiritual land of happiness and we’ve been stuck in the religious rut ever since. While this description may be ingratiating to the cynic, it rings hollow to anyone who has ever had real religious experiences, and at best is a gross oversimplification.

Moreover, it misrepresents the basic motivations of people. Regrettably, no matter how scary death may be, far away objects rarely motivate us as much as maybe they should. Consider how many tasks you’re probably putting off right now reading this article. If the impending doom of finals or that essay due at midnight (but you can finish it in an hour anyways right?) isn’t enough to motivate us, then death, something we are hardwired to ignore, would seem a poor explanation for the often tedious and consuming practice of “religioning”. Many other half-baked solutions for why man is really religious exist; he couldn’t figure out why the sun kept rising and setting every day, he thought the wind was a ghost, it made for a good story, but none of these (or the cornucopia of other theories) really strike at the heart of why religion is significant to people. Yes, religion has been used to explain science, establish social orders, and facilitate morals, but all of these are penultimate roles of religion. Its greatest significance has always been how it manifests in real people’s lives.

Your Spirituality Is Showing

Instead of going through, and debunking every misconception individually I would like to focus instead on why we really do need religion. Note that I’m not just talking about that warm feeling stuff. I mean real, hard, boring religion. First, it’s important to understand that man is a spiritual creature. Almost everyone can think back to some occasion in their life that they would describe as deeply “spiritual”. Though we may be embarrassed to admit them or unable to put them into words, experiences with the supernatural nonetheless seem to crop up throughout our lives. It’s the reason why we have been to the moon and cows have not, or why we write music and paint while chimpanzees throw feces at each other. C.S. Lewis, the influential Christian theologian put it this way, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Eating, sleeping, sex, work, all these are worthy endeavors. If, however, they represent the full depth and breadth of our experiences, then our existence here on earth seems to ring hollow. Though these physical things are important, they yield in significance to the great virtues of man: love, charity, honor, creativity, and so on. There are seemingly endless differences between cultures, peoples, and nations, however, deep rooted other worldliness seems to pervade all of them, pushing the human experience beyond the temporal. Whether it’s in the art of the Renaissance, the architecture of the pyramids, or religious practices the world over, spirituality is ubiquitous.

If It’s Not Hard, You’re Not Doing It Wrong

So at this point you’re probably feeling very comfortable. “I’m a spiritual person” you think. I love all those “higher order” things, I don’t need organized religion. I can be spiritual all on my own. This perspective, while tempting (because it’s easy), is nonetheless, like equivocating the feelings between a couple after a one-night-stand to a couple’s love after 50 years of marriage. The “knock-off” is fun, but can never even come close to replacing the real thing. The quick burst of ethereal spirituality we feel while looking at a sunset or by doing one good deed is negligible in comparison to the complexity and depth of a concerted and prolonged focus on developing one’s spiritual self. In the end there is no real comparison; one will alter the very substance of life, while the other will glance off our nature, leaving us much the same as before our encounter.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “I can push myself spiritually without the assistance of others, without a focus or destination”. Though this may be technically true, we certainly would never apply it to any other aspect of our lives. If you are reading this article, then you probably enjoy learning and are willing to pursue it in your spare time. This does not however (I hope!), mean that you see no value in achieving an actual education or going to college. In fact, it is that thirst for knowledge that has been driving people into communities of learning for millennia. Love of learning doesn’t cause us to sarcastically smirk at education. So how can love of spirituality cause us to frown at the institutions of its furtherance?

Man Is A Creature Caught Between Two Identities

There is another, even more important reason as to why organized religion is necessary. Though spirituality on its own can make us feel good, cause us deep personal incite, and make us more self-aware individuals, ultimately the unique job of religion is to integrate that spiritual sphere seamlessly into the physical one. I’m not saying that exclusively spiritual people never have spirituality affect their tangible life, or that religious people always effectively integrate spirituality into every aspect of theirs. I mean to say that religion teaches us how to truly incorporate the spiritual and physical. And by so doing, help us become our truest selves. Though accomplished in different ways by different faiths, invariably the goal of religion is always the same, to distill the spiritual into the physical, sacred into the vulgar, divine into the mundane.

Though these physical things are important, they yield in significance to the great virtues of man: love, charity, honor, creativity, and so on.

Regrettably, we all realize at some point the bitter fact that no matter how hard we work, what positions of power we may achieve, or what contributions to society we may make, we will all be equal on our death bed. Here it will not be confronting our mortality which will scare us, but rather our own banality. We will all have to confront the bitter fact that nothing we do in life really matters, that it is all passing, dynamic. That someday the sun will expand and consume everything, that the universe will collapse in on itself leaving not even a trace of our lives. Life is like the smell of a great feast to a starving man, it serves only to make our impending doom all the more bitter because we know what we’re losing out on. Religion, the religious life, a life that outwardly bears many of the same hallmarks as a life without religion, is the only way to receive (and note that I did not say find) meaning in life. It is the only source of satisfaction and fulfillment, inexpressible by those who know it, incomprehensible for those who do not seek it. It is the only way that this life will ever have meaning beyond merely being the first act of a play that ultimately ends with our carcasses being consumed by worms. It is not the physical life, not the “spiritual” life, but the religious life that brings this peace with it.

Church, boring church, and all the commitments that go along with it; all the “thou shalt’s” and “thou shalt not’s”, is the only way to bridge our physical experience with the spiritual one we know exists and yearn for. It’s religion, real hard religion, religion that’s not always fun, or easy, or popular. Why? Why is institutionalized religion uniquely able to do this? Because it demands a price for developing godliness. It tells us that we are not in fact good enough, that we are in fact sinners. That we do have a lot of potential, but that we are squandering it right now. No, its job is not to make us feel bad, its job is to open our eyes.

In Conclusion

A man in a dark cave will never be inclined to try opening his eyes until he feels the warmth of sunlight on his face. At first the light may be shocking or uncomfortable. It may reveal aspects of the man’s appearance, of his nature, which he finds disconcerting or ugly, but ultimately it is only through this refining light that he will have the ability to see his way out of the cave. Referring to the transformative process of religion Paul the Apostle said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” . Religion will give us the ability to mold ourselves into something greater, and the perspective to see what that something “greater” can really be.

A man in a dark cave will never be inclined to try opening his eyes until he feels the warmth of sunlight on his face.

So to millennials, my contemporaries, stop discrediting something that generations of humanity has based its existence on and try asking yourself the question why. Why they were so willing to sacrifice so much for “religion” in the first place? On further inspection, you may find that the thing you once so openly spurned actually holds many kernels of truth which you’ve been seeking your whole life.

Photo credit Wolfgang Stuck

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