Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When Religion Is It's Own Worst Enemy

A lot of truth in this poster and it's one reason religion is taking a nose dive in the West.

I stole the following comment from an NCR article by Michael Sean Winters discussing this BBC article.  I felt bad about the theft until I saw it was written by Jim McCrea who I consider a valuable member of this blog community---just as he is for many other progressive blogs.  The BBC article reports on a study done by two researchers whose data suggests that the future of religion in nine Western countries is decidedly dim.  Winters disagrees with the researchers in no uncertain terms, but Jim McCrea has the better take by far--at least as far as I'm concerned.

"People tend to think that "religion" is defined by the structures with which we are currently familiar. For many people that is ALL that religion is. As those structures fade, weaken, become irrelevant and/or boring and generally no longer appeal, then they (“religion”) will disappear.

“Habits of The Heart, by Robert Bellah et al., spoke convincingly of the tendency of Americans to seek a religion that will satisfy them, confirm their expectations, and make them feel good about themselves - in other words, a religion that will leave them where they are, one completely incapable of transforming them. “ (John Garvey, Of Several Minds” The Protestant Moment? Commonweal, 10/8/93) (We seem to like our political parties this way too.)

However, what is happening is not new and was predicted by the humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in his 1964 book, Religions, Value and Peak Experiences:

“Most people lose or forget the subjectively religious experience, and redefined Religion as a set of habits, behaviors, dogmas, forms, which at the extreme becomes entirely legalistic and bureaucratic, conventional, empty, and in the truest meaning of the word, anti religious. The mystic experience, the illumination, the great awakening, along with the charismatic seer who started the whole thing are forgotten, lost or transformed into their opposites. Organized Religion, the churches, finally may become the major enemy of the religious experience and the religious experiencer.”

Roman Catholicism today seems to find itself in a very similar situation. Throughout its historical foothold it has increasingly become irrelevant in the lives of large portions of the citizenry of those footholds. The preservation of the bureaucratic model has become the raison d’etre of organizational Catholicism. The next push for evangelization most likely will be just one more panicky attempt to rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking Barque of Peter.

For those who take religion seriously, belief is not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of meaningful and, may I say it – true religion. Until and unless people grasp the need for such a discipline, they will misunderstand the nature of religion to console, and equally importantly, to challenge and to confront.


Maslow's point that religions themselves are becoming the major enemy of religious experience will never be accepted by religious authorities, but that certainly doesn't make Maslow's observation wrong.  It only makes it more correct.  Nothing kills spiritual or mystical experience like religious certainty and the attendant sense of self righteousness this can engender in followers.  When a religion stops challenging and confronting it's own failures, flaws, misconceptions, and outdated doctrines it ceases to be a living entity.  It can no longer provide meaningful religious experiences for the vast majority of it's believers and those believers will look elsewhere for spiritual meaning.  And so it is entirely possible that nine countries in the West will soon be dominated by spiritual seekers and the religiously non affiliated and Roman Catholicism will fade to virtually nothing as a major cultural player.

Along these same lines, in Jamie Manson's latest article she talks about a class assignment she gave two very different groups of students.  One was composed of basic eighteen year old freshman, and the other was considerably older.  She asked them to create their own religion.  The vast majority of students in both groups created very similar religions which virtually ruled out any formal leadership structure or dogmatic moral code:

..."When I questioned both classes about this lack of leadership and a fixed moral code, I received the same answers. They do not trust religious leadership. Why? Because they believe that religious leaders are not living out the morality they espouse.
Not only do these students believe that they do not need a mediator between themselves and God, many believe that the mediator may actually taint or obstruct their relationships with the holy."

The reasoning Jamie found for this lack of leadership and moral code sounds suspiciously like Maslow's observation.  Hypocritical religious leadership kills religious experience.  It does not foster it.  It becomes it's own worst enemy. People, in larger and larger numbers, believe they are religiously better off with out religious leadership and the institutions that shelters that leadership.  This is not about rejecting religious/spiritual experience, but about rejecting the institutions and leaders who think they can dictate what becomes a static religious experience.

This is a big time serious message the Vatican needs to hear if it even remotely cares about the future of the Church in the West.  The Burke's of the Vatican have to understand they can not substitute irrational abusive moral codes and high religious theatre for legitimate religious experience.  This substitution might work for a small minority but for the vast majority it's a hypocritical turn off.  In his concluding remarks on the above linked study, Winters suggests the BBC sees the Church as nothing more than the Easter Bunny with property.  Trouble is MSW might have hit on the truth for a lot of people when it comes to legitimate religious experience versus institutional religion and it's too often hypocritical leadership.



  1. I've noted today on Bilgrimage that the institutional church is its own worst enemy, not secularism. No outside agency could do as much harm to the institutional church as much as it has done to itself by ignoring sexual abuse and trying to sweep it under the rug, while expecting the laity to submit to theological enforcers and accept unquestioningly the change in emphasis from Vatican II to a restorationist agenda. It is failing all around them and us.

  2. While imperfect, the social science methods used in the study quoted by the BBC are quite powerful. Mathematical modeling of human behavior can be used for valid forecasts, particularly when the data used is from many countries and covers hundreds of years.

    Here in Canada, Roman Catholicism is an extremely important social phenomenon. When my parents were adolescents the Catholic Youth Organization was an important part of their social life. Church groups were the foundation of our most important sports, hockey and lacrosse. The religious orders were among the most important groups in society, running hospitals and schools. For a time the association between religion, school and sports was so strong that St. Michael's College in Toronto had a team in the Ontario Hockey League. The coach of the national hockey team was Father David Bauer. For a Catholic the religious life blended seamlessly with the public life. For years the "Flying Fathers" hockey team would tour the country raising funds for charitable causes in much the same way the "Harlem Globe Trotters" would do so for profit.

    So much has changed. A former Catholic friend of mine switched to the Baptist Church because it offered more social and sports programs for his family. Meanwhile the Catholic church under attack from the right to return to the Latin rite, suffering the counter reformation guerilla attacks from the Opus Dei, Legion of Christ, and others could not fulfill the expectations of the parish laity to provide CYO, hockey, or even Bible studies let alone hospital or school services. An outdated model that put clergy above laity made the priest's job impossible. The Church's repressive view of women caused the religious sisters, who had run their own affairs, (thank you very much!) for hundreds of years to decline. Clinging desperately to a past that never existed, trying to please the most regressive among the parish has caused the church to base its message on fear. And the message of fear has caused the decline in the influence and power of the church. Yes, the Catholic Church is it's own worst enemy.

    And it can be measured, like it or not, by "precise reductionism".


  3. I saw those pictures of Burke. I think I am going to gag. His narcissism is so out of bounds.

  4. I read your post on Bilgrimage about the Constantinean Church and it's collusion with the State. I too have maintained the merger of Church and State back in the fourth and fifth centuries was the beginning of the long end of the spiritual life in Catholicism--at least in the leadership. When a religion becomes perceived as another path to secular power it enslaves it's message to the personal power agendas of it's leadership. Like attracts like.

    I've found the situation with Caritas very interesting for a couple of reasons. This is a bald power play by the Vatican to retain absolute control of an organization in virtually every country on the globe with a 5 billion dollar budget. It has more influence than any other catholic organization and it was under lay management. It has the potential to be a parallel church based in social justice and 'on the ground compassion' and the Vatican can't afford that and maintain the exclusive right to frame the message. Social justice and compassion are very real in actual practice, where as the fruits of the clerical/sacramental system are far more nebulous.

    I will be following the Caritas story very closely because I think it represents far more than has currently been suggested.

  5. Mark that's quite a series of photos. Cardinals Burke and Pell are so, well, so holy and lace filled.

  6. p2p There's no question the Church is doing everything it can to bring fear back into the equation, and there's no question that 'fear of God' is better for top down organizations than 'love of God'. At least that used to be true, but not anymore. Fear kills and going forward that will not be much of a spiritual option.

    By the way, I remember the Flying Father's from my days in Detroit. Bishop Ken Untener used to play for the Detroit Archdiocesan team. Talk about a man's man. This is from a belief net article:

    Ken Untener first became known because he played priest-hockey games with an artificial leg. There are plenty of stories of his being helped off the ice, only to return a few minutes later with a new leg. Untener shocked people when he was first appointed bishop of Saginaw, Michigan by selling the bishop's palace and becoming a "nomadic bishop;" he moved from rectory to rectory, spending time with his fellow priests and getting to know them better. I understand that he still plays hockey at the age of 70."

    Funny how Untener is a major pain in the you know where for American conservatives even with their present emphasis on bringing 'manly men' into the seminary.

  7. I'm the theological lightweight in this this crowd, but I do know a few things.

    Caritas represents an interesting case of a social justice organization. George H. W. Bush, the greater, tried to encourage the development of non-governmental organizations to provide civil society. Government would shrink the market and the "thousand points of light" of volunteer community organizations would thrive, taking over some of what had been the responsibility of government. He envisioned the old fashioned churches as primary providers of health care and education, harkening back to an earlier time. Karl Rove recognized that the churches, thus elevated would be more important players in politics. The rest is history.


    PS Colleen somehow I knew you'd know about the Catholic hockey tradition. Great story about Bishop Untener. That era of priests were real men, yet despite their generational limits, encouraged what became the social and cultural revolution of the sixties, the civil rights movement.


  8. Ohhhh NO

    That missing punctuation makes all the difference.

    In my previous comment it should read:

    ...Government would shrink. The market and the "thousand points of light" of volunteer community organizations would thrive, taking over some of what had been the responsibility of government.


  9. P2P,

    I am interested in what you are saying about Catholicism in Canada. I grew up in the 90's in St. Catharines (now I live in Toronto). Perhaps it was the perspective of childhood, but Catholicism did seem much more stable and there was much less anxiety about it than I perceive now. There was a sense in which I could take it for granted- it was just there as the primary narrative around which my life was ordered (and therefore could be quietly and quite calmly assumed) and the main social organ outside of the family.

    Of course, this could all just be nostalgia...

    Still, its obviously in a twilight these days and this saddens me greatly.

    You might find my blogpost of interest here which gives an account of my experience :

  10. Mareczku, take a look at the photos of Burke and the accompanying biting commmentary at Richard Sipe's website. The writer nails it about the cost of the clerical bling Burke loves.

  11. I'm sorry. When I saw that picture of Burke and his train bearer parading in front of a denture clinic, I could not help myself. I cracked up. Does he have any idea of how ridiculous he looks?

  12. Raimundo Panikkar, in his The Rhythm of Being, ( his Gifford Lectures),has an interesting section where he points out that the present situation is a conflict between heteronomy, ( being influenced by an outside greater power), and autonomy, ( being influenced by an inner force).

    Both heteronomy and autonomy depend on seeing the Sacred as an exterior, remote Authority. Neither position recognizes that this view of the Sacred does not accord with Reality. Heteronomy in its worst aspect leads to hierarchical authoritatianism while autonomy in its worst aspects leads to narcissistic anarchy.

    Reality is neither monistic, ( heteronomy), nor atomistic, ( autonomy). Reality is Trinitarian, and mutually inter-dependent. God, Man and the World do not exist separately but in a mutual flux of interdependence.

    To properly mirror Reality, another way of expressing relationships is needed which Panikkar calls ontonomy. Ontonomy is neither heterony nor autonomy but something else.

    Ontonomy is becoming more and more visible as people abandon both heteronomy and autonomy.

    The present crisis in the Church is a result of those vainly attempting to preserve heteronomic thinking and doing. It's not only in the RC church that this is going on. It's occuring in every religion and even in politics, economics and social relations. Everywhere one sees the conflict between the two poles of heteronomy and autonomy. Everywhere also, ontonomy is becoming the only real viable "solution".

  13. Yes, it is hard to believe, Kim. What amazes me is to listen to some of the right wingers go on about that overbearing queen Burke like he is the second coming. !!!!!!!

  14. Anon, the Navajo teach a very similar concept about the trinitarian nature of reality. I'm now all motivated to read Pannikar's lectures.

  15. Yesterday was the Feast of the Annunciation.

    Mary's response to Gabriel's announcement that she was to be the Mother of God was the essence of ontonomy.

    She did not act in response from a heteronomic authority nor from her own autonomic (subjective) authority.

    She, instead, said yes in complete synergy.

  16. Exactly, but more than that, Gabrielle made it evident that it was her choice, and she made an incredible choice which could only have been made from an ontonomous understanding. Sometimes we know when a given choice will have results far beyond the sum of it's parts.