Claims that religion is a mere cipher for political (i.e. temporal, earthly) power tend to be stated as follows: ‘Religion isn’t the problem; it’s the guys in charge’, ‘Religion is only about control’ or ‘I only have an issue with Organised Religion, not religion per se’ (small ‘r’.) This is problematic on several grounds, if not plain flimsy.
First of all, recourse to the latter argument in particular removes a near totality (by adherence) of the world’s religions from serious analysis. To take the two largest sects: Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam are, to the very core, organised religions. The former has a thicker hierarchical structure than the latter, to be sure, but this is a mere question of degrees. Simply put, neither religion is capable of being understood except in organisational terms.
Deny the organisation and you effectively deny the existence of the religion at all. It isn’t tenable to say ‘I like Christianity’ in the same breath as ‘I do not like organised religion.’
Defining religion so as to exclude organisation is almost a category error except that some entirely disorganised religions like cargo cults and Pantheism do attract a negligible following (but I’m sure most people do not have these in mind when making the argument which I dispute.)
So why not say simply ‘My problem is religion (full stop)’? For fear of causing offence? To exhibit tolerance? If that is the case then you’re satisfying almost no-one; not theists and not atheists. And strict agnostics adopt apathy.
Let us put it this way too: all ‘divine’ revelation, which is the only basis for these religions, is, as far as we know, the product of human authors enmeshed in these organisational structures, past and present. Even the major religions seem to concede this, while making the untestable punt for divine ‘inspiration’ of human authors and/or prophets.
So we cannot disentangle the ‘pure’ form of, say, Christianity, from all of its accretions. These accumulated with the first second-hand accounts, then translated with nothing like modern rigour. Reliability cannot be assumed when the sources are so corrupted, fragmented and ravaged by the waves of time (and theological intent.) How, then, can one claim to prefer the character of Jesus Christ, say, rather than the Christian clergy, when it is the image of Christ constructed and propagated by this same clergy that one is still relying upon? One would do better to be consistent and disavow both the myth and the mythmaker.
Secondly, despite the intention, statements such as those we began with can actually function to insulate religion from criticism. Much as Reformation era schismatics derived legitimacy by contending that they were ‘truer’ to Christianity, it invites superficial attempts to eschew the appearance of ‘organisation’ while still holding forth the same, perhaps pernicious, ideas.
Really, no drive for ‘pure’ religion is truly an orphan of its forerunner(s). One is being sold a used car that’s had its odometer clocked. And that odometer is dialled back with every refrain of ‘No, *that* is not *true* Religion X’
Finally, we must also consider the subtler possibility that statements such as those above seem to preclude. Yes, it can be observed that in most theologies there is a morality which systematically generates obedience from followers, and through which there is usually material gain for the religious organisation.
However, rather than suppose any elaborate conspiracy, it is more likely that these architects of control (i.e. theologians) earnestly believe they are working towards an ultimate or higher purpose. The object may be to obtain and exert power with which to fulfil a divine will or plan which is utopian in character, such as salvation. Power is a means in this way and not an end in itself.
My hunch is that it would be hard to keep up a pretense so cynically, that is to say without drinking one’s own Kool Aid, and for so long without being found out. Scientology will not grow beyond cult-size and is atrophying right now for this reason. L. Ron Hubbard was not remotely sincere, and this we know because the historical record is embarrasingly non-fragmentary for the 1950s. Education and literacy, likewise, are at historically unprecedented levels so that de novo religions cannot attain critical mass (for now.)
Meanwhile, suicide bombers continue to explode, gay marriage is fought as an existential threat to humanity and, to single one sect out, Mormons go on baptising dead Jews. None is a runner in zero-sum, realist or power-maximising analyses. If religions were only charismatic corporations, there are now more efficient methods of maintaining and winning customer loyalty at their disposal.
Say it sotto voce, but people really might just genuinely believe it all. I don’t think that’s too controversial to suggest. That might do for a very partial explanation of the persistence of religion in human societies, and the power still vouched to them.