The Dangerous Mistake of Organized Religions

A few weeks ago, my sixteen year-old cousin asked her Confirmation advisor whether people who don’t believe in Catholicism go to Heaven.

“No,” he replied. “They go to Hell.”

My cousin was deeply troubled. She went home and told my aunt, “I don’t know if I can believe in a God who would send friends of mine to Hell for not believing what I believe.”

Her reaction makes me happy. Who would want to believe in such a God?

Who would celebrate a supposedly all-knowing, infinitely benevolent Creator who casts the majority of His beloved children into an abyss of eternal fire and brimstone?

I would hope that no one would, but it seems that this isn’t the case. It seems that a man who purports to be a mentor for my impressionable cousin is happy to do so.

And there’s something very wrong with this.

Recognize That Some Doctrine is Antiquated

The words of my cousin’s supposed mentor sound like a scare tactic or a threat. He might as well have said, “Don’t even think about not believing in the one true God or you’ll sign your ticket to Satan’s endless torture chamber.”

Some people might tell me that I can’t blame this man because he was merely relaying the actual Catholic doctrine to my cousin. After all, it really does say that in the Bible.

Well, Scripture also says you aren’t supposed to get a round haircut, tattoo your body, wear gold, or eat shellfish either. But don’t worry – you can keep slaves. Denying freedom to a fellow human being is a-okay.

With the exception of the most extreme adherents to the Bible, most Catholics (and Christians generally) nowadays accept that some ideas found in the Holy Book are outdated and misguided.

I know a whole lot of Catholics who don’t buy into such ludicrous restrictions and who wouldn’t drive them into the minds of youngsters.

But, this piece isn’t about lambasting the nuances of Catholic Church. I know many Catholics who possess a more modern perspective on the doctrine and are genuinely kind people.

The Notion of Exclusivity

What’s most important to notice about the anecdote — and what this article is about — is the notion of exclusivity implicit in the ideology of my cousin’s “mentor’s” beliefs.

I mean – when he dies, he’ll be rewarded with 72 virgins in cloud paradise while all the other poor schmucks get to watch the skin melt from their bodies for infinity. Contrasts don’t come much starker than that one.

It’s important to note that Christian faiths are examples of religions in which exclusivity is literally built into the fabric of the belief system. Do things our way, and you’ll be rewarded beyond measure. Choose not to follow our rules, and you will be punished.

Not all religions are based in such black-and-white principles. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that practitioners of any faith are immune to the effects of group self-centeredness and a mentality of exclusivity.

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An interesting psychological study showed that narcissism tends to become more rampant in groups. This is because it is acceptable and even encouraged in many organizations to believe that “ours is the best one”.

Additionally, the study indicated that when a person feels that one group to which they belong (political party, gender, race, religion, sports team, etc.) is superior to all others, they are more likely to feel that way about all groups to which they belong.

And sadly, the study showed that a person’s belief that their social groups are superior tends to manifest itself in the form of negativity directed toward other groups.

So, exclusivity is built into the very fabric of groups. Groups encourage an attitude of superiority, and that attitude leads to discrimination against other groups.

It’s easy to find evidence from the past to support these findings. The history of our world is peppered with horrendous examples of war, genocide, and hate crimes that result from one group attempting to assert its superiority over another.

Unfortunately, many of these atrocities (think Islamic jihads, Salem witch trials, the inquisition, etc.) have been committed in the name of religion. And it isn’t just isolated incidents that happened hundreds of years ago. Murder, oppression, discrimination, and acts of brutality are still committed in the name of religion every day.

Why This Troubles Me So Much

I realize that many awful events of history are unrelated to religion, and I don’t think the ones that have religious associations are inherently worse than the others.

However, exclusivity (leading to intolerance and animosity) in religious organizations irks me even more than exclusivity in other groups and prompted me to write this post. Why? Because of this:

All religions have one thing in common: they tell us to love and be kind to one another.

This is what every religion is founded upon! Once you sift through the minutia of doctrine-baggage that also accompanies every organized religion, you find that the most central message of all of them is the same: be loving and compassionate first and foremost.

But somehow, when all of the rules and interpretations and descriptions of the divine are thrown into the mix, religious institutions and their practitioners lose sight of this overarching principle.

They set themselves against one another and against those who choose to be secular, atheist  or agnostic because they are too caught up in the details.

They lose sight of the ultimate purpose of religion — to make the world a more loving, unified place — and instead get tied up in the inconsequential dogma.

So they miss the point entirely.

As a result, these organizations — these churches — that are supposed to exemplify love and acceptance become sources of exclusion and intolerance (which historically and inevitably lead to violence and hate-mongering).

And this only further reinforces the narrow-mindedness and bigotry that already infect so many of our societies and institutions.

I should stress again that religious organizations are absolutely not the sole culprit of perpetuating these types of attitudes in our society — many, many organizations do.

However, religions have always had and continue to have an opportunity to set a better example. They have the opportunity to shine as the beacons that they were meant to be — lighthouses celebrating something higher, more humane, more loving, and more understanding.

When organizations that are supposed to support love and humanity join the ranks of exclusive groups that promote discriminative attitudes, they’re missing that opportunity.

Common Mission

Therefore, it is imperative that people of organized religions remember that they are all bound together under a common mission — a mission to spread love and kindness.

When a religious zealot twists their beliefs into a reason to look down upon or berate or attack someone, they’re failing to uphold that common mission.

Furthermore, this mission is certainly not reserved only for practitioners of religion. It’s a mission shared by scientists, hard materialists, spiritualists, non-believers, and all kinds of caring folks worldwide.

Spreading love, kindness, and understanding is a mission that transcends the classification of any religion. It’s a way of life that anyone can practice at any time. It’s a universal religion. 

The Biggest Obstacle

This post was about organized religion, but it was meant to use organized religion to relay a message about group membership.

We must be cautious about becoming arrogant about the groups we join. If we’re not careful, they become a reason to divide the world and make us all resentful of one another.

We become so swept up in our group identities — Republican, Chiefs fan, male, academic, Caucasian, hipster, upper class, bodybuilder, American, sorority sister, Mormon, etc. — that we begin to automatically exclude, antagonize, and hold animosity toward people who aren’t in those groups.

We end up completely forgetting about our human identity, and even beyond that, our identity as one of 9 million species on the planet.

This is why group membership is truly the biggest obstacle to the practice of universal compassion. It’s okay for us to be in groups, but we need to check ourselves and be conscientious of how our groups are making us view and treat other people.

We should aim to expand our consciousness to include and accept everyone and everything. We should make an effort to stop judging and condemning and instead embrace the diversity of our planet. We should focus on cultivating our individuality, rather than allowing our groups to define our identity for us.

If we can do that, we’ll find that the only real Hell is the prison of intolerance that we constructed.

We’ll discover that treating all people with kindness and respect isn’t just a golden ticket to Heaven. It’s an end in itself. It’s our liberation.

“Our true nationality is mankind.”
― H.G. Wells

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(Clarification: A friend expressed concern that I had misrepresented the Catholic Church, so let me clarify: The modern Catholic Church does, in fact, believe that members of other Christian religions and even other faiths can go to Heaven, so long as they believe in God, are baptized, or desire to be baptized. Non-believers, however, cannot.)

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a creator, entrepreneur, and perpetually curious autodidact interested in just about everything. He tweets a lot. He questions all the things. He makes unusual rap songs. He wanders the globe and writes about the most vitalizing, useful, and/or world-changing insights he happens upon. He dreams of a more compassionate, cooperative global community in which every human being’s basic needs are met and all sentient beings are respected. Befriend him and/or get his free eBook on how to exit the world of traditional work and live a radically free life. Amor fati, humans.

  • Francis Meyrick

    No comments, eh? Okay, I’ll bite…

    1) slavery in the Bible.
    I’m not a Biblical scholar at all, but my impression is actually that the Bible impresses upon slave owners a need to exercise compassion, in a manner that was quite unusual and massively revolutionary for its time. I can’t find a reference that specifically “sanctions” or encourages the ownership of slaves. As you seem to imply? Rather the opposite. And are you saying the BIBLE promises 72 virgins in Paradise? The Koran promises a bunch, but the Bible? Where? Damn, I’m joining!
    2) Catholicism.
    It’s hard to deny that there is a basic conflict between what St Paul teaches and what the Catholic church teaches, in the matter of “Salvation by works” and “Salvation by Faith”. The Catholic Church seemingly teaches or implies that you “earn” Salvation, and there is this heavy emphasis on following Church Doctrine: going to Church on Sunday without fail, going to Confession, getting Absolution before you die, etc. My understanding of Corinthians is that no matter WHAT you do, you will NEVER “earn” your salvation. It is arrogant and presumptuous to think so. Corinthians talks about the fact that we all have fallen short. We all have sinned. We have all have let the side down. But because it is in the Nature of God to be compassionate, and because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that we can be saved through “Salvation by Faith”. Then there is the strange veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. We call it “Mary-ology”. Nowhere in the Bible can I find any support for the veneration of Mary.
    I mean all this as a passing comment. I know many wonderful Catholic people, who do wonderful things. I also know many “Salvation by works” examples, who are judgmental and intolerant, haughty and basically off-putting.
    3) The Notion of exclusivity, Narcissism, judgmentalism, atrocities, Jihad.
    You have a lot of valid points here. I caution you to reflect on what YOU mean by the world “Religion” and what other people understand by the word. I often feel there is a conflict between the God-made and the Man-made. Assume there IS a God for a second. What then comes from Him, (in terms of “religion”) may make sense, and be full of goodness. But then along comes Man, and he twists and warps and spoils it beyond recognition almost. Looking at Northern Ireland. I have forever alienated people I know by saying this was NOT a war about Religion. I see it as a TRIBAL war, between the haves and the have nots, in this case between the original population (oppressed for a long time) and the
    descendants of the original invaders (the oppressors). Religion was just a tribal means to identify your foe. It had little to do with studying the Bible, or exercising compassion. Many Catholics and Protestants were so in name and ancestry only. Not in Spirit, or in mind, or in Faith. Hence the absurdity of people going to church on Sunday, and committing all manner of hate during the week. Blame it on God-made “religion” or Man made “religion”? It’s up to you. For me, it was Man…
    4) why this troubles me so much
    You say: “All religions have one thing in common: they tell us to love and be kind to one another”.
    No. I don’t agree. I’m not a Koranic expert either, but I seem to read much intolerance and lack of compassion in the Koran. As for the pronouncements and actions of many proponents of Islam today, I see worse. About as bad as the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials. Today.
    5) “They lose sight of the ultimate purpose of religion – to make the world a loving, unified place – and instead get tied up in the inconsequential dogma.”
    I wish that were the ultimate purpose of religion. is it? Or is it ultimate power? To have ONE religion encompass the whole world? To resolutely stomp out the voices of opposition and dissent? Sharia law perhaps?
    I find “organized religion” of any type increasingly gives me the shudders. Yet I accept the need to share beliefs, knowledge, learning.

    6) Common Mission, Universal religion.
    To exercise compassion is the highest we can strive for. Interestingly, Pope Francis has appealed to Atheists for help in the world’s problems. How right he is. Goodness is written in the hearts of Good men and women, and they sure as hell are not all Catholic.
    7) Kind and respect
    In theory, sure. be nice to all living things.
    But it’s not that easy. If you point a gun at me? “Sir, you are considered armed and dangerous, do as I say, or you will be shot!” He doesn’t comply, so he gets shot. I have no problem with that. Or we have some clap-trap Socialist vying for dumb ass votes, so he could bolster his own ego, his party, and his personal career ambitions. He trots out the usual socialist bullshit, knowing full well it won’t work, (Say, raising the minimum wage overnight to $15, or taxing the Rich to solve all our problems, etc, etc) but as long as the sheeple believe him and vote for him, hey! it’s all good. Power…!
    I call that for what it is: Dumb ass, Liberal Bull shit. I don’t mince my words.
    By doing that I fall way short of what you are advocating. But then I’m more cynical than you!
    But thank you for writing. Good work. keep ’em coming.

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