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I don’t do organized religion. What does that mean?

So, yesterday I had a conversation with a good friend who is a self-appointed scholar activist about the political repression and protest in Egypt. During the course of the conversation I happened to mention in passing that President Obama prayed for the Egyptian protesters at the National Prayer Breakfast. At the mentioning of this, she went into one of those self-righteous activist tizzies about how organized religion is the root of the problem and ended her soliloquy with, “I do not do organized religion.” Of course, I looked at her and said, “What do you mean you do not do organized religion?” And, she said, “It’s oppressive and I am more spiritual.”

All I could say to her in that one moment in the tone of my tell-you-like-it-is godmother is, “Is that so.”

But, the more I think about it her response and the many conversations I have had over the years with activist of all kinds (i.e. feminists, Marxist, non-conformist, progressives, liberals) about organized religion infuriates me.

And all I want to say is this:[In the tone of my tell-you-like-it-is godmother] What do you mean you do not do organized religion? Does organization make religion oppressive and if so, how? And, can you give me examples of religious or spiritual practices that are not organized and serve people? Does organization make it oppressive? Or, is it simply oppressive because it’s religion.I find myself wanting to know the answers to these questions.

But if I conjure the spirit of my tell-you-like-it-is godmother she would say, “Now, when people say they do not do organized religion as if it was a fading fashion fad it means that they enjoy sleeping in on the weekends. It also means they enjoy working on the causes of poor working class people, but do not want to necessarily share their worldviews and know their culture. And, if we are honest, most people radical activists advocate for and mobilize for believe in some God or Goddess or both (i.e. Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Lucumi, etc.). But, the radical activist tells herself, they have internalized their oppression eventually they will see the light and become as I . . . agnostic. Of course, radical activist think they are more enlightened because they can afford a personal therapist, sabbaticals off to recuperate, niche radical communities that feed their self righteousness, time to learn world indigenous rituals and take the names of the spirits and the gods from the practice to use at their retreats. Yes, they do not do organized religion because often their class privileges allow such discretions. This is not to say that the lack of class privilege causes one to participate in an organized religion because that is not true, but the ability to make judging statements about those that practice is about privilege.”

“I don’t do organized religion.”

That statement sends me into a crazy head space. It’s a liberal catch phrase like no other. I have heard it bantered around radical and progressive conferences. I have heard it proudly proclaimed in small feminist reading groups. And once again I ask, does organization make it oppressive? Or, is it simply oppressive because it’s religion. And, I think it is the latter. And, if it is the latter just say it. Don’t hide behind the organizational structure of the religion because that structure for better or for worse helps to deliver social services and skills to our communities of color. Yes, the structure of the largest world religions can be oppressive to LGBTQ individuals, people of color, women, and opposing faith believers. But, I tell you, on its most good day holding constant the homophobia, the materialism, the sexism, the history of oppression, organized religions encourage people to be better people . . . to be more loving people . . . to be more tolerant people . . . to be more about social justice people.

Just because a religion is organized does not mean it is oppressive.

And with that, just because you, radical activist, are more spiritual and don’t participate in organized religion does not mean that the spaces in which you find spiritual quickening are not oppressive. Because I tell you this, I have participated in such spaces at various activist gatherings and conferences and have found that they “passive aggressively” force people to be vulnerable and open to “whatever” simply because they purport to be non-hierarchical (i.e. organized) and non-oppressive. And if you choose not to be open in the ways laid out formally or through the social practices of the radical group than you are made to feel as if you are not committed to liberation.

It is about power and group politics 101.

And, I think I agree with the late feminist Iris Young that oppression can exist in such “ideal communities” . . . that simply because you purport openness, you are not organized, you see the other face to face (i.e. mirroring activities), and you have the veneer of consensus simply because you all believe the same ideology . . . oppression does exist here too and to think otherwise leads to oppression.

“I don’t do organized religion.”


Every time I hear it my spirit-woman cringes. It cringes because I believe we are spiritual beings having a human experience and sometimes people experience the spirit in their organized religions. It cringes because it knows that what can make organized religion oppressive also operates in radical conscious spaces too . . . intentional or unintentional consummation of power or power intentionally or unintentionally consummated. I think Audre Lorde said it best that it is the master’s tools that will not dismantle the master’s house. And I know many people take that to mean among many things religions, but I take it to mean the motive behind the enacting of the tools. So, if the motive is consensus at all cost the use of religion or the use of radical ideology is corruptible because it seeks to wipe away, silence, destroy, and kill difference.

“I don’t do organized religion.”

Well, if you don’t do it, radical activist, than you do not serve the poor, the working class, the women of the world, and people of color who by and large believe in some god, goddesses, and spirits. And who realize that it is through organization of themselves and their communities that they can come together to worship, to chant, to pray, and to meditate . . . that there is something profoundly spiritual about coming together as a community and learning how to become better people and using the organizational structure of the church to help people and communities.

I tell you, I was once one of those who said, “I don’t do organized religion.” But, I have come to find that the same oppressive issues that drove me from Christianity rear their ugly heads somewhat differently in progressive radical spaces too which got me to thinking about Audre Lorde’s conception of the dismantling the master’s house. Once again, I think it is the motives that implement the tools that we should ward against. Mind you, some tools are inherently oppressive (i.e. guns and separatist/elitist ideologies). But, the motives of absolute consensus and likeness are what we should guard against.

“I don’t do organized religion.”

Then you fail to see how so many social movements globally have used their organized religions to fight against oppression . . . from India (Swadeshi Movement) to Liberia (Christian and Muslim Liberian women) to the US (The Civil Rights Movement).

“I don’t do organized religion.”

Hm . . . then, you, don’t seek to help, love, and work with people you so desperately want to help, love, and work with.