Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Religion Trap

 A lot of people think you should live your life based on what some guy wearing a sheet said, 4,000 years ago.  Because, apparently back then, people were smarter than they are today.  Any ideas contrary to what the guy-in-the-sheet said are thus shouted down.

Religion has made a lot of headlines in the news these days, and often not for the best of reasons.

We seem to be entering an age of Faith, and one that is fraught with difficulty. As people become more and more faith-oriented, there is more and more tension, as different faiths inevitably collide with one another, and also as faiths collide with modern living and social values.

Many others are finding faith to be less important in their lives. The events of 9/11 and the actions of extremists such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda have turned many people off from religion entirely. The attitudes of the Taliban towards women, for example, are not far different than that of many extreme Christian and Jewish religious sects - or even that of Hindus or Buddhists.

Many on the left harbor romantic notions about some far Eastern religions, without fully investigating them. So while they are prepare to excoriate the Pope for his stand on Gay Marriage, they fail to fully appreciate that the Dali Lama feels about the same way.

Religion is based on Faith, and as I have noted in other posts, you cannot argue Faith logically, by its very definition. So agnostics and atheists who try to "prove" that Religion is wrong are not only wasting their time, they are being illogical. Many times, I see atheists trying to argue that "science" disproves the existence of God. However, this would come as a surprise to most Scientists, who, while not Holy Rollers, have deep and profound religious beliefs of their own (which they usually do not advertise).

Many in the atheism movement have made a religion our of atheism -with Charles Darwin as their holy savior. Such folks are often not scientists, and often do not understand the underlying science they are asserting as an alternative to religion. And merely substituting an atheist religious doctrine (or humanist or whatever) for the dogma of a church is really not an improvement. Oftentimes, such self-proclaimed "free thinkers" are more narrow-minded that snake-handling evangelicals.

The same could be said to be true of anti-cultists. Like most people, I find Scientology to be mildly annoying and perhaps a bit silly. I suppose the same could be said for the Catholic Church, or EST or some other "new age" religion. But nevertheless, if people want to follow it, that's their business. What is often more annoying and sillier is the folks who make a career out of spreading scare stories about these religions. Folks who feel cheated or mislead, and thus turn their hatred of their former religion - into a new religion itself.

[Personally, I could not join any kind of cult, unless I was allowed to be the charismatic leader. If there is an opening for me, let me know. Otherwise, I'm not interested, thanks].

Faith has a place in the world - an essential place. And churches can and have done a lot of good for society. Faith is what keeps the worker going to work on a regular basis, and perhaps thinking twice before sleeping with his neighbor's wife. Faith and religion provide some semblance of order in many parts of the world. The problem is, of course, that many religions take this too far, and try to control every aspect of a person's life, and also try to control entire countries and governments.

But that's not what this article is about. This blog is about personal finances. And thus, this article is about how religion can be a trap for the individual.

As I have noted before, people can easily fall into psychological traps. They find it easier to fill out a role than to live. A kid in high school becomes a "troubled teen" in part because it is a role to play - with expectations and attitudes to fill and even a perverse career path. The addict follows a similar role, as does the perpetual plaintiff, the "victim" or whatever. For many these roles help them push aside their daily worries and cares, as they can argue (to themselves at least) that their "role" is more important. How can I worry about my personal finances when being a community organizer is so much more important? For many women, the "Mom" role works this way - they view their lives as super-important as they are doing the job of raising our precious children. It can be a way of drowning out the background noise and also disquieting questions about their lives.

Religion, particularly extreme religions, can also fill this need for a "role" to play. By extreme religions, I mean ones that require an inordinate amount of your time, energy, and money. Extreme religions also are characterized by a rigid orthodoxy and a need to tightly control how you think. These can be mainstream religions, or offshoots or sects thereof, or so-called cults (so-called, because they are indistinguishable from other religions, if you think about it) or even these "new age" religions and philosophies.

The evangelical Christian movement is one of the more popular of these in the USA, and I will use that as an example. However, I am not picking on evangelical Christians, and certainly not all evangelical Christians fall into this category. And there are many forms of Evangelical Christianity, from fundamentalism, so-called "full gospel" to more esoteric forms such as snake-handling, "end times theology" and the like. Other evangelicals are hardly more than Presbyterians. So they run the full gamut.

When you visit such a Church, usually after an invitation from a member of members, the sensory experience can be overwhelming. For many people, with low self esteem issues (who doesn't have these occasionally?) and other troubles, the experience of attending such a church can be very positive. Everyone is so friendly and warm and happy to see you. You are the flavor of the month, the new convert, ready to witness or covert or whatever. For many folks, this experience fills a desperate need in their hearts - a need for love and acceptance - that they may not be getting from their family and friends.

This sort of sensory overload is often the hook that evangelicals (as well as so-called cults) use to rope in their members. Once inside, they are kept in by a rigid form of thinking and behavior. Members are encouraged - or indeed required - to view the world entirely through the prism of their religion. Every decision in life is perceived as a religious test. What would Jesus Do?

Attending church once a week is not the extent of participation. Members are encouraged to listen to religious radio shows, which populate the AM and increasingly, the FM dial. In addition, tapes, books, videos, and other media are available for sale in religious bookstores, or by the church itself. Many of these media are quite alarming - concentrating on "end times" theology, or spreading of rumors or outright slanders about competing religions or various other groups.

Moreover, the member is also encouraged - again often required - to view themselves strictly in terms of their membership in the church. So "Jesus Fish" bumper emblems, t-shirts, necklaces and other religious paraphernalia are strongly encouraged. Businesspersons are encouraged to identify their business as "Christian" by discretely (or sometimes not-so-discretely) adding a fish logo to their signage. Church members are encourage to do business only with other members - marked by this logo.

And of course, the member is encouraged - usually required - to give large amounts of money to the church in the form of tithing. In some instances, more primitive churches encourage such giving, on the implied promise that a donation to the church will result in a direct give-back from God himself. For example, one not-very-bright former neighbor of mine gave a staggering amount of her paltry paycheck to a local "full gospel" church. A month later, she bought a very used oil-burning and rusted Chrysler Cordoba. She told me "Jesus gave me this car!" and I asked her "Gee, what did you do to piss off Jesus?" She didn't appreciate my humor, to say the least. But the point is, the church had her convinced that but for her tithing, she would never have had this wonderful clapped-out Chrysler. From my perspective, for the money she was spending in tithing, she could have bought a new car. Perhaps the minister did.

(Note that the Catholic Church used to cut to the chase in this regard, selling " indulgences"    which guaranteed the purchaser a passage to heaven.  I wonder if these can be re-sold and if there is a secondary market for them.  But again, I digress.  A Catholic friend of mine says these are still being sold, but on the QT these days, lest it foment another Protestant Reformation.  God Forbid!)

These types of churches play to the Santa Claus model of God - that God lives up in the clouds, knows if you are naughty or nice, and dispenses gifts to his favored peoples. The problem with this model is that too many religious groups are claiming to be his favored peoples to make the system work. Moreover, historically, people who fork over large sums of money to a church do not often end up "luckier" than those who do not. They merely end up that much poorer.

Is there anything wrong with this scenario? Is this any different that any other church, such as the Catholic Church? Some would argue that the requirements of a "devout" Catholic are little different than those of many of the modern evangelical or cult churches. And there is probably a point to that. Which is one reason we had the Protestant reformation. But to some extent, all churches fall into this category. The scenario I described above with regard to Evangelical Christian churches mirror descriptions I've read of converts to Islam. They attend a mosque, and suddenly, everyone is their friend and they get a warm feeling, and before they know it, they've converted. It's the same old thing wrapped up in a different Keffiyeh.

Another tactic being used by the evangelicals of late is the "Christian Nation" argument. We are to be lead to believe that the "Founding Fathers" of our country were all a bunch of Religious Fundamentalists - a charge that will surely come as a surprise to Thomas Jefferson, who was clearly agnostic. Others, such as George Washington, clearly did not make a large deal about religion in their lives - if anything, Washington spend more time with Masonic ceremonies than he did in church (Masonry is often viewed as an anathema to evangelical Christianity, and yet most of the Founding Fathers were high-order Masons).

When sworn-in as President, Washington added the words "so help me God" as an ad-lib to the Presidential Oath (The phrase does not appear in the Constitution, and neither does the word "God"). At the last minute, someone suggested he swear on a Bible, and a mad dash ensued as the members of the inaugural committee struggled to find one. So much for our Christian forebears.

Unfortunately, many of these new religions, and indeed many of the old ones, are all about money, particularly your money. The Pastor of the Mega-Church wants your donation, as the construction of the new church will cost millions - or the church is struggling to pay off the debt they incurred building the church. For some folks, these churches form a social network, and also provide community support. Many churches provide day-care, 12-step programs, couples counseling, support for the homeless and other community projects. As I noted, churches CAN do good for society.

But others do very little in the way of community programs, but still extract large amounts of money and time from their members. For example, so-called "end times theology" churches can be particularly problematic. These churches teach a depressing lesson of fear and helplessness. Based on some rather pained interpretations of obscure verses of the Bible, the "end times" adherents argue that the world itself is about to end, and that the events leading up to the end of the world are foretold in the Bible, particularly in the Book of Revelations.

The problem with this "theology" is that it is not an ancient foretelling of the final days, but rather the invention of a fundamentalist preacher in the 1830's, and is based largely in specific translations of earlier Bibles. Thus, many real theologians would argue that the entire "theology" is based less on Bible teachings than on modern constructs.

People who fall victim to such churches are encouraged to believe that the world is about to end - that any recent event falls into a foretold pattern. No matter who is elected President, or perhaps leader of some foreign country, that person is said to be the "Antichrist" - and the facts about that person are molded to fit the previous foretelling. Fitting any current events into such a mold is not hard to do. There will always be a natural disaster or some other event that could be said to fit the pattern - there is no shortage of bad news.

The problem is, if you truly believe the world is about to end, they why bother doing anything at all? Not surprisingly, most "end time" believers are very impoverished, as they do little to advance themselves or their own lives.  And many suffer from depression.

And this points out an area where all religions can be crippling. When people start to use their religion as a crutch - to justify or rationalize their own lack of action in their lives, that is when religion cripples (and they need a crutch even more). Passivity is never a good path to take, as it rarely leads to success. Relying on God or Luck to save you is never a good plan.

"God Helps Those Who Help Themselves" as Ben Franklin once said (another one of those born-again founders). Or as Jefferson said, "I find the harder I work, the more my 'luck' improves" (this from a man with slaves, of course).

Now of course, the idea that you can totally control your own destiny is foolish, and probably an affront to God. "When a man makes plans, God laughs" goes an old Yiddish saying. And it proves the point that no matter how much planning you make, the unforeseen will likely change those plans.

But that is not to say that being entirely helpless and passive is God's will. Yes, the Bible says that God will help the helpless, and Jesus said that the meek will inherit the Earth. But that is not the same as saying "do nothing and wait for God to bail you out". At least in my interpretation, what the Bible is actually saying is that, after all else fails, God will be there for you. But that doesn't mean God wants you to do nothing at all.

I have a friend who was drawn into one of those "end times theology" churches. He renounced his family and friends, and spends all his spare time at the church, and donates every spare dime to the church as well. What do they give him in return? Well, they promise him the world will end soon and since he forked over all his dough, he'll be one of the chosen few to be called up to Christ. He'll get to fly through the air like an airplane! It's a great story. But I wonder what will happen when he turns 50, or 60, or even 70, and the promised "end times" fail to materialize as promised - and he realizes he squandered the majority of his life and wealth on a premise based on shaky foundations. Will the "end times" church be there to support him in his hour of need? I doubt it.

And they don't expect him to be a member at that point, anyway. In any cult or far-out religion, there is a constant movement of people through the organization. According to one study, at any given time, about 1/3 the members are in the process of joining the organization, 1/3 are adherents, and 1/3 are starting to question the whole deal and have one foot out the door. Any business based on "churn" like this is questionable. They constantly have to troll for new customers, as the old ones are constantly getting pissed off and leaving.

And when you leave, expect to be shown the door promptly. The last thing any church or cult needs is someone asking pointed questions about the minister's new Rolls Royce. People who ask questions cause problems, as it may get other members to think. So once you are branded a "heretic" you can expect to be tossed out in short order. Such folks often end up bitter and angry, having been renounced by those they thought were "friends". There are websites galore filled with former cult and church members, all-too-willing to tell their story of betrayal. Of course, many end up signing up for the next circus that comes to town. They really want to believe, in almost anything.

Is your Religion a trap? Consider the following criteria:

1. When joining, are you made the center of attention, lavished with praise and love, at least for the time being?

2. Are you encouraged to sever contacts with family, friends, or anyone who does not believe in your religion?

3. Does the religion foster an "US versus THEM" mentality, where the religion (and its members) are viewed as a persecuted minority standing up for "what is right" against a corrupt world?

4. Does the charismatic leader have lavish cars, homes, clothing, a jet, or other expensive accessories?

5. Are beliefs tightly controlled and dictated from above, with no dissent or questioning allowed?

6. Are members constantly criticized for purity or correctness of their beliefs?

7. Are those that question the belief structure forced out and ostracized?

8. Does the religion take up more and more of your time?

9. Are you asked to donate large sums of money?

10. Is there a high turnover rate of membership?

11. Are you forced to wear a particular costume or clothing or accessory as part of the religion?

12. Is your diet restricted or dictated as a result of the religion?

13. Does the religion require you to consult with religious leaders with regard to your business or other activities or have them approved or blessed by religious leaders?

14. Does the religion dictate your political views for you?


These are just a few indicia, and not a complete list. A religion might be a trap if more than a few of these items are apparent. And bear in mind that this list can be applied to everything from traditional main-line religions, to cults, to "new age" religions and even to political parties.

Whether or not a religion is a trap is of course, up to you. Faith cannot be logically argued, proven or disproved. If you have a need to dress up in funny hats, that's your business. All this article suggests, is that you consider whether your faith is being used by others for their own gains and goals, at your expense.

* * * *

Your personal views on religion are your business, of course. But consider carefully how much time and energy you are throwing into a church, cult, group, or whatever, and whether or not this is really what God wants you to do, or whether you are doing it for some other, more selfish reasons. Also ask yourself if the particular church, group, or cult is really helping you, helping society, or helping themselves. As I noted in my "Organizations" article, many organizations take on a life of their own, and their own survival and self-interest is often their primary agenda.

Many folks today are realizing that having a relationship with God has nothing to do with an organization or church or building or money. They can be religious without having to affiliate with an organization that tells them what to believe or do. Many others are finding out that a religion need not be a money machine, tied in with buildings, salaries, programs, and an endless need to generate cash.

Perhaps religion could be poised for a "new age" after all.

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