Whether it is due to the secularity of the Canadians among whom I live or whether it is a widespread North American trend, I often hear people say, “I consider myself a very spiritual person, but I don’t believe in organized religion”. I am tempted to reply, “If you don’t like organized religion then you’ll love Orthodoxy in North America. You can’t get much more disorganized than we are.” But I usually forego the quip, because I know what they mean by the terms “spiritual” and “organized religion”.
That is, when most people in my neighbourhood talk about spirituality they mean a belief in unseen realities, and the possibility of tapping into those realities and accessing their hidden potential by doing certain individual practices, such as meditation, exercises, positive thinking, or chanting. A generation or so ago, I hear that the use of crystals was popular. These people are usually also committed to social justice and to the values of tolerance and respect for diversity. In my experience, they are very nice.
When they say that they don’t believe in organized religion, they are usually referring to the Church, though if pressed they would lump synagogue and mosque alongside it as well. There may not be any overt hostility to the Church/ organized religion, just disinterest. It reminds me of how C.S. Lewis once described himself in his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy: after his conversion to theism, he said that he still found “the idea of churchmanship…wholly unattractive. I was not in the least anti-clerical, but I was deeply anti-ecclesiastical…Though I liked clergymen as I liked bears, I had as little wish to be in the Church as in the zoo.” In the same way, these people who profess an interest in spirituality also have as little wish to belong to a church as they do to live in a zoo. Church membership may be fine for me and for other animals, but not for them, thank you very much.
So, what’s the problem with belonging to a church? What parts of the organization of religion turns them off? In my experience it is not, as some might expect, the fact that some confessing Christians live in a way inconsistent with their confession. These secular people are smart enough to know that every large group sooner or later has its own scandals, and that it is unrealistic to imagine that the Christian Church could be around for two millennia without at least a few people behaving badly. They are distressed when they hear of sexual scandals in the Church, and of course everyone laments the Inquisition and the Crusades (even if they know less about them than they think they do), but such things are not the source of their rejection of “organized religion”. What turns them off is the fact that the Church presumes to tell them, with some insistence, what they should believe and how they should behave, that it makes decisions for them that they feel they must make for themselves. In short, organized religion crowds their sense of personal autonomy to the point where they reply, “You’re not the boss of me.”
For example, the Orthodox Church tells its members how they should regard Jesus of Nazareth—namely, as the true Messiah of Israel and divine Son of God. Its members are not free to make up their minds about questions of Christology, preferring (say) the views of Reza Aslan to those of the Nicene Fathers. Or to take another example, the Church tells its members which behaviours are right and which are wrong, so that a woman is not free to abort her child even if she decides that getting pregnant was a mistake, nor is a man free to pursue a sexual relationship with another man even if he finds himself attracted to him. Decisions to have an abortion or to indulge in homosexual activity put the member on the outs with the Church. What being on the outs means may vary according to the individual situation, and for different churches, but the fact remains that pretty much all forms of organized religion have standards for belief and behaviour to which its members must abide.
Most people have long since come to regard religion as a supremely private matter, so that no one has the right to dictate to others about matters of faith or morals. Our culture has become radically individualistic, and hotly resents the imposition of such authority over private freedom. But what some regard as tyranny is really simply a matter of consistency. Take for example, membership not in a religious organization, but in a bowling club. No one forces me to bowl or to join a bowling club, but if I do join such a club (say “The Surrey Super Seniors”) then that club will demand certain things of me—namely, to show up on time for the bowling tournaments, to bowl for the team as well as I can, and not to the throw the game because another team (say “The Langley Lucky Limpets”) bribes me to do so. It is senseless to refuse to meet these expectations and then to whine as if I am hard done by when I am kicked off the team. That is what belonging to a bowling team involves.
Or take the example of a political party. If I join (say) the Green Party of Canada, I am expected to support their platform, not denounce its leader, and to vote for the local candidate during the next election. If I join the Green Party and then refuse to play by their rules—if I denounce its leader openly at every opportunity, campaign for the Conservative Party of Canada, and then vote for the Liberal Party, the Green Party quite properly would cancel my membership, for I clearly have no idea what belonging to the Green Party means.
It is same thing with the Church, or with any organized group of faith and conviction. The Church makes no secret that it confesses a particular creed and that it expects its adherents to behave in a certain way. Nothing compels me in North America to belong to the church or to any organized faith community, but if I do, I must play by their rules—not because the group opposes private freedom, but because as a group it has made a choice between certain beliefs and certain ways of behaving. By joining that church I am saying that I share those choices. The Church is not imposing its beliefs upon me—rather, I join the Church because I have chosen to share its beliefs. The Church is “organized” because it holds me accountable to live consistently with my own initial choice. The alternative to “organized religion” is thus not “disorganized religion”, but the refusal of the individual to submit its personal autonomy to anyone else. Rejection of organized religion is not a matter of preserving private freedom, but of refusing to be accountable to anyone. The official name for this refusal in the old literature is “pride”.