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Time to Retire “Organized Religion”

August 31, 2009

The phrase “organized religion” needs to be retired. It needs to be retired because it’s crypto-normative, and because the normativity it carries is indefensible if brought into the light of day.

If we were to do a genealogy of the phrase, I bet we would find that the ideology the term carries has its roots in Erasmus’ inward/outward binary (or, more accurately, later uses of Erasmus’ binary that he could not have intended).

The idea is that there is some inward, primary, spiritual experience or devotional act, in contrast to outward, secondary, social experiences. The former is intrinsically good; the latter is value-neutral at best, and possibly negatively valued.

Almost every time the phrase is used, the implication is this: organized religion isn’t as pure/good/profound/spiritual/etc. as the core something around which the religion is organized.

This is crap for the following reasons:

  1. The implicit ontology is indefensible: there is no way to justify the claim that we have “spiritual” or “inner” connections with “the transcendent” or “God” or a “spiritual” realm
  2. The implicit ontology is indefensible: our “interior” is socially constituted rather than prior to society (Wayne Proudfoot’s book, Religious Experience, offers the knock-down argument for this claim)
  3. The implicit norm is indefensible: there’s no justifiable reason to give some sort of across-the-board normative priority to so-called “inner” experience over so-called “outer” or “social” experience, especially if I’m right about #2

In sum, there is a lot of dubious crap that quietly slides underneath the phrase “organized religion.”

The reason why people continue to use the term is clear: it’s a pejorative term that passes as a neutral term (like “cult”). You can criticize something without having to launch a real critique just by slapping on the label “organized religion.”

If you doubt that last claim, check out the first thing I found when I did an image search for “organized religion”:

2009-02-23_organized_religion

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    September 1, 2009 11:04 am

    While I obviously don’t believe in a pure inner ‘religion’, I do tend to think that there’s something a little like a ‘core something’ which is often more pure/good/profound/spiritual than ‘organised religion’. So if I could be devil’s advocate:

    “1) The implicit ontology is indefensible: there is no way to justify the claim that we have “spiritual” or “inner” connections with “the transcendent” or “God” or a “spiritual” realm”

    I don’t see how this weighs for one side against the other, since it’s equally unjustifiable to say that we have “social” connections with God through any set of institutions.

    “2) The implicit ontology is indefensible: our “interior” is socially constituted rather than prior to society”

    This reminds me of Hegel’s arguments against democratic theory – because there is no pre-social ‘freedom’ that people can exercise before being socialised, there’s no point demanding that such a freedom be given weight or that government be consented to. (at least, that’s the right-wing reading of Hegel, the left one might be that he’s arguing simply against atomising democracy, and in favour of democracy exercised through deliberative associations – but I think the former is closer to his personal intentions, however important we think those are).

    Gosh, that went off on a bit of a tangent. The point is, if this argument is good against the claims of ‘individual spirituality’, why is it not good against the claims of ‘individual freedom’?

    “3) The implicit norm is indefensible: there’s no justifiable reason to give some sort of across-the-board normative priority to so-called “inner” experience over so-called “outer” or “social” experience”

    Why could there not be either A) an empirical argument, that says ‘social institutions of religion are pretty shifty characters, look at their records’, or B) an argument about spirituality itself which says that, while socialisation will influence it, it’s necessary for it to retain a certain focus on the individual, which ‘organised religion’ doesn’t fit easily with.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 2, 2009 7:52 am

    “I don’t see how this weighs for one side against the other, since it’s equally unjustifiable to say that we have “social” connections with God through any set of institutions.”

    My point is not that we *really* have connections to gods through social groups rather than individual experience; rather, the point is simply that the phrase tends to smuggle in a theist or supernaturalist ontology.

    “[I]f this argument is good against the claims of ‘individual spirituality’, why is it not good against the claims of ‘individual freedom’?”

    The difference is that I can have a social constructionist theory of individuality, freedom, and individual freedom (and do, actually), but such a theory draws attention to the ways in which freedoms are socially constructed. What the theory does NOT do is mystify freedoms by making them seem as if they were somehow a part of the furniture of the universe and therefore prior to social practices. By contrast, appeals to organized religion DO mystify “religious experience” or “individual spirituality” as essential parts of the furniture of the universe and as prior to the social.

    As Jeremy Carrette and Richard King show in Selling Spirituality, spirituality, if anything, fundamentally social rather than individual, and, in addition, it seems to be an ideology that buttresses late capitalism.

    About your third point: there is definitely a way in which one could point to certain practices of the self (read: late Foucault) that might reasonably be called “spiritual” and that aren’t understood well by comparing them to what happens in “churches.” But I believe (A) that empirical studies would not bear out the idea that “spiritual” practices like these are better or worse across the board when compared to institutions like churches.

    About (B): necessary? for whom? for what purpose? Is it a language point? I.e., are you saying that you’d just be defining spirituality as focusing on individual practices, so that it would be necessary to restrict the extension of the term to those? Or do you mean something else?

    I think that if we were careful with our definitions it would be possible to utilize a value-neutral distinction between institutions and individual practices (however social the latter may be). However, I think that 1) the normative and evaluative baggage associated with the term “organized religion” would make it tough if we want to use that exact term, and 2) I think that most of the people who want to hang onto the term do so PRECISELY BECAUSE they want to exploit that normative and evaluative baggage—that is, if we stripped the ideological bits out it wouldn’t be useful to them anymore.

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