No matter the tenets of a particular creed, I’m pretty sure we can agree that most religions incorporate two basic purposes: instilling ethics and explaining the unknown.
But church leaders politic for power. Church members proselytize. The poor that we’ll always have with us are targets for market share rather than neighbors in sharing and service. Far too many churches have prostituted themselves to the cause of institutional self-preservation.
If we look at how humankind and our belief systems came to be, you’ll see our origins in homogeneous groups – extended families, hunter/gatherers, early farmers and so on. As societies developed, they absorbed smaller groups and cosmologies. Whether their deities were separate gods or separate manifestations of a single god is a topic for countless books and university courses.
Anyway, empires expanded, sometimes becoming more inclusive, sometimes mandating particular theologies to achieve their political goals. For a while, when Christianity was a political empire of its own, it chose a middle course, incorporating indigenous deities into its own version of a heavenly hierarchy by simply re-naming them. This applied to real estate, as well. Whether it’s recognizing a sacred site or marking territory like a dog or cat, religions of all stripes appropriate local holy places for their own use. Christians appropriated many for their own churches. Muslims converted Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia to a mosque in 1453. The Parthenon has undergone numerous religious reincarnations. The list goes on – on every continent.
Let’s fast-forward to today, where our wired society has outgrown local homogeneity. Religion’s another badge of distinctiveness; sometimes, but not always, more powerful than loyalties to local sports heroes and teams. Immigrants in a new land are held together not only by ethnicity and language, but by the authority of their church. Look at the history of various forms of Christianity in the Americas. The clergy become authority figures with levels of trust rarely extended to political leaders. In recent history we need look no further than the Catholic Church in British-ruled Ireland or Communist-ruled Poland. Or black churches in the USA. It’s arguable that the Muslim faith of immigrants to the west puts them in these same categories – helping its adherents anchor their personal lives while they navigate a new culture.
All this is fine and good. But once we go beyond theology and social service, we need to remember the third leg of institutional stools: self-preservation. As with every other part of life, people and politics have a lot to do with determining the priorities each leg receives. While there are countless church-goers helping others across the planet, the most visible religious are those on a power-hungry mission to destroy and control others in the name of their particular deity.
Rather than enhancing our existence and creating community, is religion becoming its own being and its own reason for being? Can it fulfill its function when its legs are out of balance? Religion began as part of tribal community. Can it help us overcome the tribalism that still characterizes humanity? Or will it simply reinforce it?
Can religion return to its roots? Can we bring back an old-time religion that reinforces our community, recognizes our commonality, respects and helps others? Can we use religion’s institutions to practice what most religions preach, rather than to institutionalize followers?