Tuesday, January 27, 2009

When Religions Fail

This started as a few thoughts in response to a comment, and grew into a larger article. It is related to my previous article on the function of religion, but takes those ideas further. Here's the crux of the original comment from reader AISh MLChMH:

Being a Christian isn't unusual within the U.S. However, I think that's in the process of changing:


"Large numbers of American adults are disaffiliating themselves from Christianity and from other organized religions. Since World War II, this process had been observed in other countries, like the U.K., other European countries, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand."

Being a member of an organized religious group, I'm obviously interested in understanding the cause of this increasing disaffiliation.

The title of this article is a little misleading because I mostly am discussing organized Christianty and it can't be said that Christianity as a religion has failed. It is still one of the largest religions in the world and the dominant religion in the United States. However, the modern age poses a number of challenges to the faith and I think it is likely that churches will need to adapt some aspects of their structure in order to stem the tide of disaffiliation.

Any effective religious system can be deconstructed into three parts:

(1) A narrative. This is often the story of the founder of the system. For a narrative to atract adherents, it must be inspirational to a significant number of those hearing it.

(2) One or more technologies. Since the function of religion is to produce spiritual experiences, every effective religion must have some set of spiritual practices that facilitate these experiences.

(3) A sociopolitical structure. This is how the religious system integrates itself into the society at large, polices its members, and advocates for its interests in the political sphere.

Most new religions start out with (1), develop (2) soon after, and only progress to (3) once there are enough members to sustain any sort of political structure. It is important to understand that (3) is not really necessary for a religious system to work, but nonetheless it is often sought out by leaders who want power in the material world as well as the spiritual. Part of the general disaffiliation from organized religion is likely due to a general distaste for the excesses of such leaders, but I think it goes further than that.

The Christian Church has never had many problems on the narrative side. The "good news" that evangelical Christians try to spread and communicate to others - the story of Christ as found in the Gospels - is inspiring to many people and this probably explains the growth of Christianity in parts of the world only recently exposed to it on a large scale, such as Asia. The idea of Christ's sacrifice in exchange for the salvation of the world is moving and powerful, and seems to resonate with much of humanity.

I would posit that Christianity's current problems are related to the collapse of (2) in service of (3), and that this has been going on for a long time. In the first millenium the Christian Church persecuted the Gnostics into near-extinction because they dared to value (2) above (3). The intercessory model of the Christian priesthood was specifically created in service to (3), and the implication of it was that regular people should not have any access to (2). The various spiritual technologies available to monks and the priesthood were kept from lay believers, and behind closed doors these practices eventually deteriorated.

This is an enormous problem from a spiritual perspective because the truth is that no one can do spiritual practices for you. You have to do them yourself. As a result, an intercessory system such as that found in Christianity and a number of other organized religions is essentially parasitic - it draws on the resources of all believers in order to benefit the few practitioners who are actually working the system. It is access to spiritual realization that confers salvation, so by keeping congregations completely in the dark actively does harm in that the overall potential for realization is reduced in society as a whole.

In service to its elite practitioners, the Christian Church also spent a great deal of effort on maintaining its political power throughout the Medieval period. In many ways the history of the Church during that period reads like the history of a military and political nation or alliance ruled by the Pope. The Church allied itself with various rulers and opposed others, organized the great armies of the crusades, and accumulated vast wealth. But none of this really benefited lay adherents of the system. They were promised rewards in heaven that the Church really had no way of securing for them.

The Protestant Reformation was an attempt to break free from this restrictive structure and set up new churches in which Christians would be more free to practice on their own. However, many Protestant sects also threw out most of the technologies developed by the Christian Church over the centuries. "Justification by faith" is not a theology that supports personal spiritual practice. Most Protestant sects still teach either the idea of Grace, which suggests that spiritual awakening is something that only God can do for you and which is unrelated to your actions, or Predestination, in which God essentially decides when you are born whether or not you are of "the elect" who will be saved. Either way, there's really nothing that you can do about it.

A religion can last a long time without an effective technology for achieving personal illumination especially if it has achieved significant social power, but with the advent of the information age people are being exposed to other religious systems and realizing that (2) is actually important. For example, Buddhism is starting to become more popular in the United States, and Buddhism is a religion that emphasizes the technology of meditation. Buddhism has also lasted sigificantly longer than Christianity or for that matter Judaism.

In addition, many people in Europe and the United States are becoming more aware of Gnostic Christianity through the publication of various alternative Gospels such as those found in the Nag Hammadi collection. Gnosticism is appealing to people who are inspired by the narrative of Christ and long for effective spiritual technology, but unfortunately it is also considered heretical by most mainstream Christian denominations and this may preclude any organized affiliation for such individuals.

As far as organized religions in general go, the most effective suggestion that I can make for any religious system that wants to survive long-term is to focus on the technology. Teach the practices, recommend them strongly to adherents, and continue to develop them so that spiritual realization can be achieved as efficiently as possible for those who are willing to do the work. Political and social power should only be sought as an afterthought, and the pursuit of such power should never take precedence over religion's real function - cultivating awakened realization.

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