I ran across a phrase last week that I’ve heard so many times that it has never made an impression. It’s “organized religion,” as in: “I don’t object to religion. I just have problems with organized religion.”
Last Friday, for instance, I was reading a story from Sweden. A logo designer named Bjorn Atldax created a blue jean logo that consists of a skull with a cross turned upside down on its forehead. According to Bjorn, the logo is anti-Christianity: “It is an active statement against Christianity. I’m not a Satanist myself, but I have a great dislike for organized religion.”
That night, while sitting in a local club with friends and family, a man kindly explained why he doesn’t attend church with his wife and child: “I have a problem with organized religion. The Church has a great message, but I don’t like organized religion.”
What is this phrase “organized religion”? What exactly does it mean?
To the best of my knowledge, the first person to draw a distinction between “religion” and “organized religion” was Voltaire, the godfather of the seventeenth-century French Enlightenment. I don’t know whether he used the phrase “organized religion,” but his biographers say he attacked “clericalism” and “ecclesiasticism,” but not religion itself. He even believed in God, if only in a half-baked way.
A lot of Voltaire’s animus came from the city of Toulouse, which was near Voltaire’s home in Ferny. The clergy in Toulouse were powerful, often to the detriment of Protestants. According to the historian Will Durant, Protestants in Toulouse weren’t allowed to be lawyers, physicians, grocers, booksellers, or printers. One day, a Protestant young man committed suicide, but the locals believed the man’s father had murdered him to prevent him from becoming a Catholic. The father was tortured, then died shortly thereafter. The rest of the family fled to Voltaire for shelter. Voltaire was incensed. After a similar atrocity, Voltaire started his crusade against organized religion.
So what does Voltaire teach us about today’s situation?
Very little. The “organized religion” Voltaire attacked had far more power in public life than it does today. No Christian sect today has direct involvement in (much less control over) local, state, or federal governments. No Christian sect today is persecuted by another sect.
In fact, based on the historical evidence, Voltaire never would have even bothered attacking organized religion in today’s environment. Nothing in today’s organized religion would have incited him to action.
Yet a mass of intellectual offspring like Bjorn Atldax and every atheistic cocky college student continue to condemn “organized religion.”
What are they talking about?
I honestly don’t know, but I have a hunch.
At what point does an individual’s belief become part of an organization? Are two Wiccans dancing around a tree part of an organization? According to Webster, the adjective “organized” primarily means “a formal organization to coordinate and carry out activities.” I think one can argue that the Wiccans dancing at the tree qualify, if they formally come together for that purpose.
Maybe that’s what Bjorn and the others are against: people coming together for the purpose of religion. “You people can have your beliefs, but keep them to yourselves. Don’t share them with people who have similar beliefs because, once you start sharing, you start taking on the shades of an organization, and that’s evil.”
Thing is, any time two or more people come together for a religious purpose, you have a religious organization, at least a budding one. If the Bjorns had their way, there would be no religion at all. There’d just be a bunch of people running around with their subjective beliefs.
Folks like Bjorn, in other words, don’t object to religion, as long as it doesn’t exist.
This hunch of mine isn’t farfetched. Organization, after all, is often the key to making a difference. If Christ hadn’t established a church, His message never would have spread. If everyone keeps religion to himself, it’ll never spread. If it never spreads, it’ll start to die. The result? The secularists will have the field to themselves, and eventually religion would (at least theoretically) die out altogether and cease to bother anyone anymore.
As Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady would say, “How convenient!”
To be honest, I don’t think the Bjorns of the world really want religion to be extinguished, but I also don’t think they have “thought through” their position. I wish they would. They could then at least be honest about their sentiment and articulate it clearly instead of hiding behind a flippant and outdated cliché.
- © Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Eric Scheske is an attorney, the Editor of The Daily Eudemon, a Contributing Editor of Godspy, and the former editor of Gilbert Magazine.