Religion should be defined as a relationship between a person and their god, whether that god is a single supernatural being or a multi-faceted force of life or a really tall evergreen tree. Religion, in this form, can be a powerful force for good in a persons life, offering them comfort in times of trouble, advice in times of confusion, calm in times of frenzy. And as long as one’s religious beliefs and practices cause no harm to others, this individual concept of religion offers the most direct path between a person and their god, and therefore, the best chance for a fulfilling religious experience. It is a quintessential form of freedom to be able to worship one’s god as one sees fit. Unfortunately, religion does not exist in this individual form, at least not for the majority of religious practitioners. Instead, the practice of religion has been subverted, taken away from the individual and institutionalized, then returned to the masses like a nicely packaged gift. Historically, and even today, organized religion has been used by the elite to control the general population through mystery and fear, to consolidate a certain religious point of view while demonizing all others, to eliminate differences in belief and behavior, to amass power, and as a motive for aggression. Where religion seeks to connect a person to their god, organized religion seeks to keep a person at arms length (or more) from their god and from each other.

At the heart of most religious thought is a concept of God as either an actual entity or natural force that is responsible for the creation, proliferation, and continuation of all life on this planet. (Further references to “God” should be viewed as referring to either version of god without regard to which one is chosen.) God is benevolent, omniscient, and the only true source of pure love or harmony. God is also unpredictable. Humans, according to religious theory, exist to serve God through reverence to the wonders of life and through acts of peace towards each other. Simply put, God is good and giving. God loves peace and kindness. God wants people to be good and kind too. We also need to please God because God is unpredictable. If we are not good or kind or peaceful, if we are not good stewards of the planet and its life, then God may punish us. Therefore, we should be good and kind and peaceful in order to please God. If this represents a kind of universal definition of god, then any arguments between schools of religious thought must necessarily be less substantial than would appear at first glance, focusing not so much on the concept or substance of religion itself, but rather on the human qualities of it; the rituals, the rules of worship, the mythology or history of each particular sect.

If religion is what you get when man and god commune, organized religion is what you get when men commune about god, and then decide that their ideas are the only right ideas, at least as far as God is concerned. In truth, organized religion is nothing more than another form of politics. By seeking to control not only the image of God, but also the method of communing with God, organized religion seeks to control humanity by closing the door to individual interaction and replacing that with a “gatekeeper” mentality. By establishing a human theological hierarchy, organized religion asserts that humans can have a relationship with God only by adhering to specific ritualistic actions that are designed to keep believers attached to the church (or mosque, temple, shrine, etc.) Further, specific religious doctrine relating to the characteristics of God as well as proper human behavior were developed to differentiate belief systems from each other, serving to establish human rivalries regarding religion. By insisting that only through the constructs of organized religion will people be able to find a relationship with their god, religious leaders are able to consolidate their power and influence over the lives of individuals who need the concepts of religion to complete their own journey through life, but were convinced that they could not realize that goal outside the larger umbrella of organized religion. (Strangely enough, the original religious prophets of many major religions actually did just that- they set out to find their own version of God for themselves. I wonder how the adherents of the faiths they helped organize would perceive their actions today?)

Organized religion teaches people that there is only one path to god and all other ways are false. Organized religion often offers ways to make amends for transgressions in our lives, either through some form of penance or payment, thereby excusing us from our negative behavior without serious consequence or remorse. But organized religion is not a construct of a god, it is a construct of mankind, and therefore is filled with all the negative character flaws inherent in mankind. By insisting that one’s brand of organized religion is the only true way, it is a short step to determine that all other religious thought is false at best, or just plain dangerous. In truth, the only real danger lies in the loss of power for those who seek to lead their respective religions and societies.

Organized religion is the conformation of the masses under one religious ideology for the consolidation of power over public behavior. Organized religion is about reinforcing religious theory through continual repetition, acceptance over substance, and absolution over actions. Organized religion is a contract between the rulers and the ruled, allowing the rulers to maintain the reins of power while the ruled can maintain their human existence without losing a chance at eternal joy. Organized religion is not really about promoting religion at all. Organized religion is about keeping people in the fold.

In the three main monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, no new major revelations from God have been received for centuries, if not millennia (with the exception of the Christian offshoot, The Mormons, who ascribe prophet status to their founder, Joseph Smith.) Therefore, all changes or reinterpretations of the original words of those long-ago prophets, be they Moses, Jesus, or Mohammad, are not changes from God, but adaptations made by man. One wonders if the words of God can be so easily adapted without changing the underlying concept of God then perhaps the words were never really those of God at all, but just of men trying to establish organized religions. But if all three prophets did receive “the word” directly from God, why would the message be different to each of them? Especially when they all share a common concept of whom or what god really is?

If we get back to the concept of religion being an individual journey, the need for organized religion becomes moot. Even the concept of needing a “house of God” for worship and reflection is one borne not from the religious concept, but from the desires of man to congregate with others of similar belief systems. Organized religion seldom achieves what it professes to achieve. It does not offer freedom of religious thought or enlightenment. It does not offer a barrier free path to commune with God. It does not provide assistance to the downtrodden with “no strings attached.” In all cases, organized religion seeks to use the concept of a higher power to control humanity. In most cases, organized religion succeeds in convincing humanity that different religions are not only wrong, but are dangerous. The desire of man to consolidate power through the use of religion has caused more pain and suffering that any other human institution, from the Inquisitions to the Intifadas, from the Holy War to the Holocaust. In essence, these and other conflicts merely used religion as a way to consolidate power and wealth into the hands of a few while keeping the many appeased and at bay.

The hypocrisy of organized religion is probably the most troubling aspect of all. While religious doctrine describes expectations for human behavior, organized religion creates exceptions to all of those rules. No killing, except for infidels. No stealing, except from the public coffers. No idolatry, unless you worship power or money. The list could go on, but the point is clear.

Perhaps it is time for organized religion to release its grip on humanity and allow a return to individual religious experiences. After all, the rituals and specific allegories of the prominent religions of the day serve not so much to answer the burning questions of life and death, nor do they seek to connect people to each other or to God. Perhaps it is time for less emphasis to be placed on particular religious theories and more on a universal concept of God and behavior, a concept that embraces many different paths to a higher force and that not only espouses the concepts of peace, compassion, and connectivity to each other and the world, but that actively pursues those lofty ideals.