The Institutionalization of Religion

Religion’s Dependence on Leaders, Credentializing Insiders, Myths

Throughout our 200,000 year existence on this planet, humans have never suffered from a lack of gurus, priests, imams, ministers, rabbis, popes, bishops, monsignors, and rinpochés. Or even, if I may be so bold, spiritual motivational speakers.

If history tells us anything, most faith-believers seem to have a need for religious leaders. They want to feel secure in a religious institution that has someone at the head of the class.

Someone who can decipher the mysteries of their faiths. Someone who has the power of prophecy. Someone who can perform prescribed rituals, even miracles. Someone who can tell them what is moral or ethical. Someone who can assure them of an afterlife. Someone who can tell them what the rules of the game are. Someone who can interpret ancient texts. Someone who can tell them what their faith’s founders actually meant. Someone who knows that there are hidden supernatural mysteries beyond the grasp of most mortals. Someone who can jump-start their enthusiasm (there appears to be an endless supply of spiritual/religious motivational speakers in many American Christian sects).

Leaders of many institutional religions are often part of an inside enclave of clergy that ordains them, elects them, and credentializes them. They become experts, not necessarily because they themselves are on their own spiritual journeys, but because they have fulfilled the training requirements (divinity schools, mentors, ancient-text studies etc).

History also tells us that, over centuries, stories (myths) have developed about how religious leaders came to wear their mantles of their authority. Many religious leaders appeared to have been singled out (“anointed”) by a divinity; others, through some force of nature or will, became enlightened. And others are often revised into a mythical status of leadership (ancient texts are full of fictional narratives about the origins of many religions’ founders. Many of those stories often ornament a founder’s life in dense, miraculous detail).

Rules, Sacred Texts, and the Need For Security

In addition to leaders, religious institutions also seem to need rules. Those rules can cover a clear delineation of moral and immoral behavior, prescribed rituals, leadership legitimacy rights, and levels of authority (from final to intermediary).

Sacred texts, of course, are essential to religious institutions. In many religions, texts are often considered to be inerrant. In others, sacred text “experts” are summoned to give the right reading of a text. Some religions are more flexible and allow for multiple interpretations of heirloom texts.

The institutionalization of religion rooted in sacred texts, stories of the miraculous, prescribed rules, and strong leaders can ofter a great deal of security to its members. By the sheer force of a religious institution’s numbers, members can assure themselves that that many people could not possibly be wrong (Truth and self-assuredness based on numbers and percentages are part of the same phenomenon when religious enthusiasts say that a belief in some form of divinity has been a universal characteristic of humans).

Religions as Institutions: Reluctance to Change, Conformity

However, religious institutions often suffer from the same maladies that all institutions have inherited.

Institutional churches seldom adapt to change without some kind of major disruption. The sheer elephant-like bulk of large denominations makes it difficult to maneuver those denominations through the diverse planes of individual opinions and tribal rivalries.

Even if a religious institution makes a covenant with itself not to veer away from its original principles, given human nature, some one or some group within a religious institution will eventually decide to become a splinter group. However, theological rebellion within old religious institutions is a far more daunting task than trying to convince a friend to stop smoking. Centuries of learned behavior is a tougher nut to crack than an individual addiction.

Formal organizations are more inclined to conformist behaviors among its members, and organized religions often devolve into status-quo organizations requiring certain prescribed behaviors and beliefs. Faith-pledges to stay within those coded beliefs are made on a daily or weekly basis through rituals (religious services, motivational-speaker venues) in which beliefs are enhanced in various forms (sacred-text readings, prayers, sermons).

Conformity within religious institutions is often based on the model of uniformity, a paradigm that gives comfort to its members more by its safe predictability than by its truth-bearing value.

Institutions, as we all know, move very slowly. They have a tendency to resist change. And they are prone to perpetuate mounds of self-referential convictions and beliefs. Individuality, within these human systems, is often discouraged as a threat to uniformity and inherited beliefs and practices.

Insiders, Heretics, the Inside Quest For Power, Mystification

When a religion begins to act like a formal organization, it also has a tendency to create inside experts in bulk form. Those on the inside track (clergy, motivational speakers ) tend to think of themselves as being on an anointed, higher-path journey of right thinking. Those outside the inner circle are viewed by theses experts as tabula rasas or the unenlightened who need to be “taught” early in the game or given a steady diet of repeated doctrine with heavy doses of didacticism from ancient texts. Those who choose to remain outside these faith-driven, doctrinaire circles, of course, become heretics and infidels by default.  (Within highly rigid religious institutions, the labels “heretic” and “infidel” have a tendency to ignite all kinds of self-validating acts of retribution and punishment.)

And, given the nature of most large institutions, it is not unusual for one department or agency within an institution to have an inordinate amount of autonomy and power (large institutions are often too departmentalized and complex for any serious monitoring or oversight to have any effect. Ultimately, then, departments within institutions have their own Darwinian battles to have influence within the larger institution).

Many institutionalized religions are no different. Sometimes ethnic/nationality blocks within those institutions vie for control of the theological agendas and control. Sometimes power enclaves (levels of clergy) will want to seize control of the theological conversations. And many times those in a religious institution’s power block will want to bleed their institutional theologies into civil and state political arenas.

Institutions also thrive on various forms of exteriorizing their significance–advertising, PR, annual award dinners, conferences, seminars. And they are not above hiding behind detached, often dense linguistic venues (memos, emails, policy statements, annual reports with charts, graphs, percentages) as proxies for meaningful communication.

Although many institutionalized religions seem to have avoided the heavy reliance on statistical graphs to measure the illusion of progress within their institutions, they often rely on membership numbers and public venues (television, radio, the internet) to either determine their population strength and/or their influence in society.

It doesn’t take an atomic scientist to discover on the Internet how profoundly complex, circuitous, and self-serving many theologies of institutionalized religions can be. Lists of sins, imperfections, principles, commandments, and theological distinctions; carefully elucidated rituals; and jargon are all part of the mystification process in the same way that a corporation’s annual report can mystify stockholders by the density of its language and its stat-driven charts and graphs. (This mystification process, by the way, could be seen as as an attempt by institutions to establish themselves as superior “experts” among the intellectually inferior masses.)

The Need For Belonging, Spiritual Journeys Without Rigidity

My experience tells me that belonging is a natural draw for many us. We like to hang out with those who are on the same emotional, intellectual, and psychological page. Not unlike myself, we become joiners. We often join churches because we have some interest in connecting with the self-reflective and social sides of ourselves. Some of us even join churches that allow us to pursue our own theologies.

At the same time, joining does not mean that we have to surrender our own experiences to an outdated ancient text, institutional power plays, a shallow sermon, or a theological mandate that worked centuries ago.

Many of us want to be on a reflective, interior, even spiritual journey. Overly institutionalized churches just don’t do it for us. We don’t want to have to constantly fight the battle of personal experience over theological mandates. And we are more than likely to reject those mandates because they have been institutionalized by an elite clergy in power because a system put them there, not because these clergy worked on their own journeys.

I am not opposed to formalizing my spiritual journey by becoming a member of an institutionalized church or a group like Alcoholics Anonymous. But the particular communities I have chosen afford me the greatest latitude in allowing me to pursue the truths about what one writer called his “best self.”

It is that best self that cannot be saddled into theological rigidity. And it is that best self that no institution can truly validate, no matter how annointed its leaders.










































2 Responses to The Institutionalization of Religion

  • Dear Dr. Marohn,

    I am a Junior at the University of Oregon. For one of my journalism classes, I am researching the issue of ‘Institutionalization of Religion’. As I was researching, I stumbled upon your blog and found your blog helpful for my research, and I was wondering if you used any sources for your blog.

    Thank you

    • Gen, No I did not use any sources for my blog. The content of the article is a result of my 50 yr experience with religious institutions.

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