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Don’t Try to Control Me!

Here's how to knock down the charge that religion is just a human invention for gaining control over people

There are many reasons why people detest organized religion. It might be because it leads to violence. Or perhaps they think organized religion requires blind faith.

For Allen Clifton, a self-described liberal Christian and co-founder of Forward Progressives, it’s coercive. He puts it plainly online: “That’s what organized religion is—control.”

But what does Clifton mean by control? He basically has two ideas in mind. Let’s consider each in turn.

The first is that it’s controlling for religious leaders to persuade people or manipulate the way they think. He writes:

I detest organized religion. What “religion” is to me is a human-made concoction meant to promote the personal views of some while degrading the views of others. . . . It’s one group of humans telling another that they’re wrong. . . . If you want to believe in Jesus Christ or Muhammad I don’t care—as long as you’re not taking that faith, forming it into a belief and then forcing it on others.

The problem here is that Clifton does the very thing he condemns religion for doing:

  • He promotes his view that religion is just an invention for people to get control over others while at the same time condemning the view that religion is not an invention for people to get control over others.
  • He tells religious believers that they’re wrong for believing that some beliefs are wrong.
  • He takes his view that religion is an invention for people to get control over others, forms it into a belief, and “forces” it on religious believers by saying they should “detest” religion as he does.

So Clifton is just as guilty of control as he claims religious leaders are. If he rejects organized religion because it’s nothing more than a control-seeking scheme, then he needs to give up his belief that organized religion is invented for control.

Moreover, what’s so bad about telling someone his belief doesn’t map on to reality? That’s basically what we do when we say a belief is false. Shouldn’t we concern ourselves about what’s real (what’s true) in order that we might live in accord with that reality?

Clifton himself inadvertently acknowledges that we should. He argues that members of different religions are “pretty much the same” and that “our core values as human beings are basically identical.” He identifies these core values as “being a good person, helping the helpless and defending the defenseless.” Clifton then asks, “Isn’t that what life is about? Isn’t that what we should all strive to be as humans?” The implication here is that life is about the above core values and that we should strive for them as humans.

Well, to say life is about “being a good person, helping the helpless and defending the defenseless” is a statement about reality. And to say we should strive to live in accord with these core values is to say that we as human beings should live in accord with reality. Again, Clifton does the thing he condemns organized religions for doing.

The second meaning of control that Clifton has in mind is having positions of power within a community. With a bit of sarcasm, he writes:

It’s an easy way to take a group of people with like-minded beliefs, group them together and manipulate them for some kind of ulterior goals. Heck, just look through history. Religious leaders often perpetuated that specific kings or emperors were “ordained by (fill in whatever God they believe in)” and for the people to rise up against them would be blasphemy. To question their rule was to go against “God,” thus risking damnation. It’s genius, isn’t it?

For Clifton, religious leaders do nothing but capitalize on whatever belief system a group of people happen to embrace and position themselves to gain power and authority over those people.

Here are a few things we can say in response.

First, it may be true that some religious leaders are self-serving and hunger for power. But that doesn’t mean all religious leaders are like that. In fact, most religious leaders, whatever faults they may have, are not power-hungry psychopaths, but sincerely believe what they teach. Therefore, it would be unreasonable to reject religion wholesale on the basis that religion is a power trip game.

Second, history doesn’t bear out this claim that all religious leaders manipulate commonly held beliefs for the sake of power. As apologist Jimmy Akin points out in his book A Daily Defense, most religions grew organically without a specific founder. The leaders of such religions, whether village priests or tribal shamans, shared the beliefs of those they served, inheriting them from previous generations. So they didn’t see themselves as beyond the beliefs held by the people they led. Rather, they were embedded in that belief tradition and thus didn’t view themselves as being able to, nor did they desire to, manipulate those beliefs for self-serving purposes.

As to those religions that did have a specific founder, there is a mixture of the good and the bad. Some religious founders did benefit materially, such as Muhammad and Joseph Smith. But others renounced wealth and power, such as Gautama Buddha. Still others refused political power and suffered greatly for their beliefs, to the extent of giving up their lives. Jesus is the example par excellence.

There’s one last response to Clifton’s way of thinking that’s more general: not all control is bad. Notice that Clifton assumes that control is necessarily an evil. And since it’s involved in religion, we need to reject religion.

But surely, we shouldn’t think all control is bad. We already saw that persuasion, at least a form of control, is not necessarily bad. Even Clifton agrees, since he’s doing it himself in writing the article.

Also, Clifton asserts in his article that “our goal as humans should simply be to exist as good people.” Well, doesn’t that involve some sort of control over ourselves—our desires for certain pleasures, our thoughts, our actions? This is self-mastery—which requires self-control

Finally, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with someone in a position of legitimate authority exercising control over the community in the sense of governing it. Every group needs a position of leadership to be unified. Shoot, if Clifton has a problem with control in this sense, then he’ll have to object to any form of government.

From a Christian perspective, such a leadership and a governing role was given to the apostles. So to reject positions of power is simply to beg the question against those Christians who argue that Jesus invested his disciples with authority to lead his Church (Matt. 16:18-19, 18:18).

Perhaps Clifton’s revulsion to religion is due to bad experiences of controlling religious leaders within his Christian upbringing. That would provide a basis for us to understand his detestation, and perhaps help us to empathize a bit.

Regardless, his reasons for believing that “religion” is a human invention for gaining control over people fail and thus do not serve as reasonable grounds to reject religion wholesale. Religious leaders who misbehave in the name of religion are the ones that need to be rejected—not religion!

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