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“Spirituality? No, we don’t do that here.”- When Religious Institutions Go Wrong

In the spirit of our membership site’s upcoming unit on spirituality, we thought it was time for a little perspective on all the ingenious ways we humans find to avoid that very subject.  Religious institutions, or at least large parts of them, tend to become masters of the art of avoiding spirituality! 

The reason is simple- like many human institutions, religions often start with a powerful sense of purpose, but over time, people with vested interests make the institution less about that purpose than about them.  At that point, anything that might lead the membership to think that the institution is about more than the rules laid down by those in power becomes a liability. And spiritual life is the ultimate liability- after all, what person in power wants pesky little enlightened people popping up here, there and everywhere, upsetting the applecart and undermining their authority with inconveniences like truth, love and integrity?

That being the case, we thought we’d give you a short tour of some of the clever devices which religious institutions have come up with to avoid such a disastrous state of affairs.  As the saying goes, it is better to laugh than to cry, although we have to admit that sometimes it’s hard to know if these things are the product of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in all of his diabolical sincerity.

 

Anyone who lives in North America has experienced moveable-letter church signs, from the pointed…

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to the cringe-worthy…

 

 

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to the laugh-out-loud hilarious.

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We will be using these signs, along with a goodly selection of cartoons, to signpost our tour through the mind of corrupt religious institutions, and by extension, corrupt institutions everywhere.

 

The real danger to any corrupt institution is from within.  As the word ‘corrupt’ implies, the people occupying positions of authority are neither toeing the straight and narrow themselves nor are they particularly interested in finding out whether any of their peers are.  What they are all deeply interested in is making sure that no one else ever looks too closely, or if they do that they don’t find anything, or if they find something that they’re discredited, or if they’re not discredited that at least they can’t do anything about it.  To quote a much-loved British sitcom, “When you set the cat among the pigeons, you let the dog out of the bag.  If you spill the beans, you open a whole can of worms!”  In short, a sticky situation. 

 

If something bad has happened once, it’s probably happened more than once, and if it’s happened more than once, there may be something wrong with the system, and if there’s something wrong with the system, the whole house of cards could collapse.  That’s why certain other corrupt systems (the USSR) made it quite clear from the start that it was alright to criticize, but never to generalize.  It’s never the fault of the system.  That kept a lid on pesky critical thinking for a few decades, but since religious institutions don’t always have gulags and firing squads to make sure the people are minding their manners, other, rather more painful processes for burying cans of worms have been found- specifically, denial.

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The first thing degenerate institutions do to help them in the cause of denial is to deprive their people of a central set of principles by which to evaluate the central principles and mission of the institution.  In a religious context, this means leaving people without the tools to evaluate the contents of their religious traditions.  That way, traditions go from ‘golden thread of wisdom reaching down to us from the ages’ to ‘anything that one of us thought or wrote in the past, no matter how moronic or trivial,’ until you get

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Some have gone so far as to declare war on reason altogether.  Of course, reasoned faith is quite possible- but letting your people expose their faith to reason might turn up all sorts of nasty little inconsistencies and moral problems with the gospel-according-to-you, and is therefore to be avoided at all costs.

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Cognitive dissonance is unavoidable in these situations where one has to declare war on morality, sense common or otherwise, and critical thought of any kind. Even so, religious institutions have realized that this is hardly a showstopper.  After all, the key to the propaganda machines of all totalitarian regimes has been not to persuade people, but simply to say something so often that it is accepted as true no matter how laughable it is, because no one dares to speak against what everyone else accepts as obvious truth- in short, new-think.

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Division is a favorite tactic of institutions throughout the ages.  In the 19th Century, nascent European nation-states started wars because they believed that it was the best way to cement national identity.  The surest way to demarcate “us” is by identifying all the evil “them”s.

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Playing the victim is a derivative of this tactic of division, except that rather than attacking the enemy you’ve identified directly, you can talk about how much he’s oppressing you.  The advantage here is that you can treat any attempt on his part to express an opinion different from your own as further oppression.  If you’re particularly talented, you can get so much credit for being that victim that the more violent and unreasonable your reactions, the more everyone will bend over backwards to placate you.

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One of the surest signs of a religious milieu gone bad is that it will attempt to dictate the politics of its members.

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Closely connected with trying to dictate the politics of their members, corrupt institutions will often seek to colonize territory- that is, to make themselves as exclusive as possible in a given area and turf out all other influences and ways of thinking,

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which is why after just a small taste of government by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the world population distribution of Coptic Christians now looks like this:

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Fear is the ubiquitous weapon of all institutions-gone-wrong, but where bosses and bankers can only threaten your money, religious institutions have a somewhat broader repertoire.  Hellfire and brimstone is the old favorite…

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because it seems people are easily intimidated and will do anything to spend eternity with someone when they hear he’s thinking about spit-roasting them.

 

Another tactic is the attempt on the part of a religious institution to divorce its clergy, and even its membership at large, from genuine understanding and contact with the society around them.

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When all else fails, when you have nothing else going for you, when the cognitive dissonance between your agenda and any sort of objective reason and morality is enough to make even Andrew Jackson baulk, dispense with the implied intimidation and just threaten to kill them.

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Of course, there are certain strategies which almost guarantee that your institution won’t survive.  It’s alright to predict the end of days, for example, but if you give an exact date, well, you’ve just put an expiry date on your viability.  Of course, originators of doomsday cults aren’t in it for the long haul- they just figure that people are less likely to guard their wallets while they’re waiting for the rapture.

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All joking aside, the point is not to vilify faith or the faithful (although many atheists make a self-serving and one-sided argument in that direction) but rather to bring home the point that religion tends to include two of humanity’s most dangerous weapons- institutions and ideas.  It’s important to test both when you’re looking for a spiritual home.  The blessing is that even in the most decrepit institution, there are small, unnoticed islands of sanity and grace.

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~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

 


Resilience Tip: Reject, spit at and mock this mentality…

For you to be right, do others have to be wrong?  For you to be good, do others have to be evil?

Ask yourself this: “Is there a secret desire in me to be the one who is ‘right’ and to persecute those who don’t agree with me and are therefore ‘wrong’?” 


This is one of the greatest diseases of the human spirit.  It cost tens of millions of lives during the 20th century and it’s all around us today in various forms.  Several years ago I was visiting a church – I won’t say which or what kind here – and the sermon left me horrified.  I was told that people outside the church are selfish, egotistical, greedy, materialistic and unspiritual.  “Oh,” I thought, “I guess we don’t know the same people, because most of the people I know outside are kind, thoughtful, caring and trying to do the right thing.”


FASCISM is a perennial human temptation, a spiritual disease and not just a political ideology.  People try to transform the groups they belong to into fascist communities, into exclusive groups that are “right” and are therefore justified to hate those who are “wrong”.  Political parties and religious groups are especially at risk.  Today’s Jihad-crazed sociopaths are simply the latest version. 


What I’ve called “authentic ancient traditions” of spiritual life are immune to this, fortunately, and consider every single human person to be precious, no matter what their current beliefs or where their life is at.  St. Isaac the Syrian (7th century) provides a wonderful description of this:


“Do not provoke anyone or argue with them, either for the sake of the faith or on account of their evil deeds, but watch over yourself to make sure you don’t accuse anyone in any matter.  If you would correct them, then say a word or two to them with tears and love.  For love does not know how to be angry or provoked or to passionately reproach anyone.  The proof of love and knowledge is profound humility.” 


One of the great hallmarks of resilience and emotional maturity is the refusal to treat the great mystery of life as black and white, but rather to acknowledge its complexity, its many shades of gray, to embrace its rich texture and everyone who shares it with you.


This, paradoxically, means the one thing you must not tolerate is the mentality of narrow-mindedness and hate.  Ready to spit at it?


~Dr. Symeon Rodger




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