Image from The New York Times.
Religion has provided comfort and meaning to humans for centuries, and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with faith, issues arise when religion becomes commodified and churches gain institutional power. From the god-descended emperors of Japan to the divine right of kings in European empires, religion has held significant influence over secular affairs and societal perception.
Money. Money. Money.
Firstly, the problem begins with money. Faith is supposed to be a personal affair, but churches have grown into institutions and conglomerates. According to the New York Magazine, the church has amassed “$1.4 billion in taxpayer-backed coronavirus aid,” much of which is going to settlements paid by clergy with abuse allegations and cover-ups, and Business Insider estimates the Church of Scientology makes $500 million annually from its private corporations, donations, and real estate. Religion has grown to a commodified good, sold by large corporate churches that seem to operate more as businesses than organizations.
These large amounts of money open up opportunities for embezzlement and corruption, as well as cover-ups of illegal activity. A report published in 2009 exposed the child abuse covered up by the Catholic Church, which found that children in orphanages owned by the church were often abused and used as sex slaves, and women and girls were coerced into servitude in homes for single mothers.
While these examples are of just one church, but that doesn’t mean other religious organizations are free of corruption and toxicity. There are allegations of abuse in every church, including, but not limited to, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Church of Scientology, and the Baptist Church.
Money and humans are a dangerous combination, and whether you believe humans are inherently good or evil, the toxicity of money’s influence is indisputable.
Power & Influence
Another important problem is the power that comes with cultural significance. The clergy hold a considerable amount of power and influence over church members, especially over those who are dependent on the church for food, shelter, and livelihood. I’ve made known my disdain for putting humans in positions of power, and religious positions of power are no exception.
Members of the clergy hold an immense responsibility to act as guiding figures and sources of knowledge for churchgoers, who often place their trust in these figures of authority. It’s because of this power that members of the clergy are able to abuse church members and often keep them quiet.
Think about it.
If you think someone is closer to god than you are and they tell you that your suffering is a necessary vehicle for salvation, wouldn’t that leave room for damaging behaviors? Just because someone holds a position of authority, a position you had no part in assigning to them, it shouldn’t mean you have to trust them or do as they say.
I have seen firsthand the corruption of a priest in my community. Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country, with churches in nearly every town. I attended Catholic school growing up, and my school brought over a priest to act as a counselor and figure of religious authority.
At first, this man seemed to have pure intentions, but soon he grew close to a church member with money. As their friendship grew, so did the number of gifts. Eventually, they had dinner together every weekend at an expensive restaurant and the priest had a new, customized car. Additionally, rumors of sexual abuse toward young girls in my school began to arise, and instead of appropriate punishment, he was shipped over to a different town.
No repercussions. No investigation.
He walked away unscathed, unlike the girls he hurt.
Faith is personal. Religion is not.
Many defend organized religion for the sense of community and belonging it provides, as well as the acts of service many churches provide. There is certainly beauty in sharing a deeply personal experience with others who practice as well, and it can even be a way of keeping yourself accountable and constantly improving.
However, churches becoming corporations and members of the same faith practicing together do not necessarily have to go together. It’s still possible to retain one’s religious community without creating an empire that profits off of its members. For example, Wicca operates in small groups of practitioners referred to as covens. They don’t have a large corporate church, but rather small groups of people united by their religious practices and beliefs. If your argument is in favor of the traditional church structure, keep in mind that just because something has always been a certain way, it doesn’t mean it cannot (or should not) be changed.
I have had long arguments with family members over my problem with religion (I am not religious, but I was raised Catholic), but we never see eye to eye. I hope this provides some clarification.
The issue is not faith or god. The issue is power, money, corruption, abuse: the perfect site for toxicity to fester.
If you defend churches, consider why. Is your faith dependent on the existence of an organization that recognizes your beliefs as legitimate and absolute? No one needs someone else to tell them what to believe. Your thoughts are yours only, and maybe the dissolution of churches would make this clearer. Maybe, just maybe, a world without churches is a world of better faith.
What are your thoughts on organized religion?