Friday, 28 May 2010

Religious Organisations - To Join or Not to Join?

Every now and then, I end up discussing the pros and cons of belonging to a religious organisation. I had one such conversation earlier on today.

I was talking to one of my colleagues about this person who belongs to a Neocatechumenal group. This individual should be getting married sometime next year. When asked about how many children he would like to have, his reply was along the lines of "As many as God decides to give us..." To my knowledge, members of such groups are against the use of any contraceptives. I said that this person must be earning a good salary in order to afford having several children! My colleague then told me that money is not such an issue for these people since they have an extremely effective support network. In other words, as long as one belongs to one of these groups, some sort of help - material or otherwise - should always be available. This colleague added that an aunt of hers who also belongs to the same type of group had ten children and that the family received a great deal of help from other group members.

In a world increasingly characterised by governments that do not show much care towards their citizens, one could say that numerous religious groups are managing to recruit several members as they provide the affection and help that is not being given by the State or by other secular organisations. Faced by issues such as poor job security, low wages, and inadequate housing conditions, it is plausible to argue that many people would be interested in belonging to an organisation that is aimed at improving one's position in life.

Sadly, many secular organisations that I have belonged to or witnessed have fallen very short of providing the type of care and help that is frequently seen among members of a religious organisation. Referring to my own experience within a secular organisation in Malta, I still clearly remember how the members would meet up to discuss group tasks without barely knowing much about one another. Granted, if the group was set up to achieve certain tangible objectives, there must be something to indicate progress, but there is no reason to justify why the members of a voluntary organisation should treat each other in a relatively cold way. With reference to the same organisation, I remember that no social events would ever be organised and most of the contact between the members was limited to a discussion or planning of specific projects.

As time went by, my interest in belonging to such an organisation waned. No matter how interesting the projects were, it felt horrible to spend time with people who barely knew anything about me, who never asked me how I was, who showed very little warmth...

Having also attended the meetings of a number of religious organisations, I could clearly identify the difference between the atmosphere within a religious group and a non-religious one. Generally speaking, most of the people I met at several religious gatherings showed genuine interest in me. Furthermore, many of them would keep in touch and try to meet up regularly in order to do fun things together.

At this stage, one of the biggest questions I have is: why does it seem to be so difficult to come across a non-religious organisation whose members are seriously interested in each other's general welfare? Why is it that one could attend numerous meetings of a secular organisation and still feel very lonely?

Although some readers could think that I am presently arguing in favour of belonging to a religious organisation, I would like to correct that impression. It is true that joining a religious organisation could lead to several material and psychological benefits. No doubt about that. Yet, such benefits are rarely offered to people for free. There is usually a price to pay. And there are many occasions when this price might be way too high to accept.

Focusing on numerous Christian organisations, membership usually entails a totally dogmatic mindset vis-a-vis several issues. For instance, in order to become a member of such an organisation, it is normally essential to consider the Bible as the true word of God. Every line, every word must be interpreted literally. The attempt to challenge a part of the Bible could easily be regarded as "Satanic influence". Whenever one starts questioning certain parts of the Bible, that person is often advised to pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Yet, what happens if you pray and pray and the guidance never comes?

Apart from not being allowed to question anything about the Bible, most Christian organisations seem to enjoy adding many extra rules of their own. For example, in order to belong to one organisation, an individual could be obliged to deprive oneself of food for several hours once a month (fasting). This deprivation is supposed to bring spiritual enlightenment and gifts to one's life, but this is - of course - extremely subjective. Many other rules could exist and it is usually impossible to challenge them. Naturally, the more rules there are, the easier it becomes for a person to feel as though their freedom has been taken away from them.

Furthermore, the tendency to rely on something that was written or said by another person would normally prevent a fruitful debate about a particular topic. For example, if one were to start analysing a specific behaviour, a member of a Christian organisation would normally just check what the Bible says and immediately judge that behaviour as good or evil. I think that such an approach underestimates the complexity of being human and frustrates the attempt to understand many behaviours in a new way. For example, what good comes out of judging an alcoholic person as a sinner who will end up spending eternity in Hell unless he/she "repents"?

When I sometimes hear certain people quote various chunks from the Bible, I often think to myself: what if all the time devoted to memorising a text that was written in a totally different culture hundreds of years ago was devoted to scientific research? Imagine if the efforts to memorise the Bible or other "sacred texts" were focused on trying to find a cure for countless diseases or on improving several aspects of our lives.

To me, the idea of belonging to a religious organisation always triggers the same question: in order to enjoy feeling loved and cared for, must I go from being a very analytical and open-minded person to a completely dogmatic one? I really enjoy being in an organisation that cherishes human welfare and strives to build a better world characterised by love, but it is too difficult for me to be a member of a structure that has such goals, but which also reduces one's life to embracing a personality cult (spending hours just singing songs of worship) and to following several rules in a totally dogmatic way. I keep asking myself: why can't people unite to care about one another and to build a better world without having to invent so many rules that could either harm them (take fasting as an example) or that deprive them of numerous harmless freedoms (the freedom for a woman to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, for instance)?