4.3.3.3 Religious Organisations

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4333.htm)

Adult people can have their beliefs influenced by joining, or remaining part of, a religious organisation and accepting its governance – but they should also have the right to leave it.  (The Islamic prohibition against apostasy in some groups is due to a confusion with treason, dating back to the early days of Islam; a text in the Islam Online Archive, entitled Should an Apostate Be Killed?, is one of several that challenge this prohibition.)

Attending a religious service is an expression of obedience to a God, an affirmation of belief in a set of ideals, an expression of solidarity with fellow-worshippers and an opportunity for self-examination.  It also gives the religious organisation an opportunity to influence the behaviour and beliefs of its congregation.

Religious organisations have internal power structures which operate further up the Moral Dimension, from the level of the congregation through to global governance; all Roman Catholics recognise the authority of the Pope, for example.  Religious power structures constrain the freedom of individual congregations to vary from the collectively agreed doctrine and practice.

Some people have a hunger for power.  In religious organisations, this has enabled believers to be exploited and caused non-believers to be oppressed:

  • Churches have amassed enormous wealth whilst their congregations have remained poor – as described for example in a Telegraph article, Wealth of churches vs the wealth of people, which highlighted the Greek Orthodox Church as owning property worth up to €700 billion (more than double the national debt) yet paying insufficient tax.
  • The Church attempted to retain its monopoly on power by preventing the Bible from being translated from Latin into English, as described in a Christian History article on John Wycliffe and the Dawn of the Reformation for example.
  • The Catholic Church committed genocide in France in what was termed the Suppression of the Cathars, an atrocity for which it was reported that an apology has been given: Bishop to apologise for suppression of Cathars.
  • The Spanish Inquisition tortured and killed non-believers.[1]

None of these practices benefited believers.  They were carried out to strengthen the power of church leaders and to eliminate dissent.

Abuses of religious power have given religion a bad name, despite the fact that religious organisations have also sometimes been of service to society: they have cared for the poor; they have provided health and education services; and they have sometimes exercised a positive influence on politicians, as described later (4.3.4.3).

In some societies, religious organisations have a role in the Legal Dimension: religious law, as described in the next chapter (5.3.3).

Religion has sometimes been a divisive force, through identity politics, as described in the Political chapter (6.7.4.2).

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[1] An Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Spanish Inquisition was available in April 2019 at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Spanish-Inquisition.