Organized Religion – Misunderstood?

By Jennifer Shelton, Owning Pink

Last week, I read Lissa Rankin’s article “Make Love, Not Burned Qurans” on and started to reply to some of her questions: “Why must we let our faith divide us, rather than unite us? Why can’t you let me believe what I believe, I’ll let you believe what you believe, and we can love each other anyway? Why must we let religion, hatred, and fear get between us and the Divine? If God is love, where is the God in this church? And what are we to do about it?” As I got into my reply, however, I realized I had an entire post inside of me. Here goes.

I was raised as a Southern Baptist in a small Kentucky town. My parents, my sister and I went to Sunday school and church every Sunday morning. We returned to church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. We had week-long “revivals” several times a year, and I always spent at least two weeks in Vacation Bible School every summer. I was quite faithful to my denomination until my 20s. At the moment, I consider myself “spiritual but not religious” but I think I’m the only one in my family who has “left” the church. I feel that I have a unique view of a fundamentalist mindset, both inside and out.

What may seem like hate is based in love

A basic tenet in many Christian denominations is that non-Christians will go to hell when they die. This was the focal point of most of the sermons I heard growing up. This tenet is accepted just as one would accept the law of gravity. I once had a friend ask me why people would choose to believe in a God who would send people to eternal hell fire. For many, this belief is not a choice. It’s just the way things are. My church community firmly believed that it was our responsibility to prevent as many people from going to hell as possible, and they went about trying to convert everyone to Christianity. How did they do this? Through fear. It can be quite the motivator.

As an elementary school child, I sat through sermon after sermon describing the eternal heat of hell fire, the smell, the pain, the thirst, the never ending agony. Sermons ended with questions like, “If you left this church today and died in a car accident, would you go to heaven?” Some preachers would even point directly at people in the pews, make eye contact, and say, “Are YOU saved?” I know this sounds horrible and hateful. But, keep in mind that within this paradigm, our mortal life is just a blip but eternity is well, forever. To leave one person unsaved was just cruel. Yes, the basis of these fear tactics (for most), was concern and love.

“But what’s this got to do with me?”

I’ve had many people ask me why some Christians are so determined to “save” other people. If Christians want to believe this stuff about hell, then fine, but they don’t need to force others to believe it as well. Well, let me tell you a story I used to hear in church growing up –

The preacher would ask us to imagine “Judgment Day.” The angels are going through everyone, casting non-Christians down to hell. The Christians are watching it all. A friend of yours is about to be cast down. But, before he goes to hell, he looks you in the eye and says, “Why, why did you not tell me about this? You could have witnessed to me and you never did.” In this belief system, how could a compassionate human being not try to convert everyone? Is there really “one true religion”? Southern Baptists certainly don’t have the monopoly on believing that there is one true religion, or that failure to follow certain beliefs will lead to eternal punishment. In fact, most religions have concepts of “right” and “wrong,” so logically, it would follow that many religions would consider people who believe differently than them to be wrong. If the religion further believes that the “wrong” people are doomed to eternal torture, then to love all people would be to save all people from this torture.

The Southern Baptists that I know personally very much believe in freedom of religion. They realize it’s why they are free to preach their beliefs, and they wouldn’t want the government interfering. However, it is their duty, as individuals, to convert. (And I feel like I have to add that the churches I know are very involved in other loving acts. The money they collect every week goes towards a food pantry for the hungry, towards helping the unemployed pay their bills and towards a wide range of humanitarian causes.)


So, why this background into the psychology of fundamentalist Christians? Because I think both they and their motives are very misunderstood. I’m not saying we should just tacitly accept or even excuse the behavior of someone like the minister who had planned to burn the Qurans; but in order to have a dialogue about love and compassion, we need to fully understand where a person is “coming from.” Attacking the basis of a person’s religion (in the case of the way I was raised – that non-Christians will go to hell) isn’t going to work.

I remember one of my first papers in college was about Descartes. I told my mother that I was writing about his argument for the existence of God. She went completely pale. Even thinking about questioning a religious tenet was far too risky for her. She’s never even been to any Christian church other than Southern Baptist!

My conversion to “spiritual but not religious”

Honestly, I’m not sure when I left behind my religious upbringing. When I went to college, I visited the churches of many different denominations. One of my majors was political and social philosophy. I stayed in contact with my spiritual side but very slowly, released the dogma. I couldn’t “argue away” my beliefs but I was slowly converted to a different way of thinking (Spirit at work!). I am currently very open to other religions and see how different people need different kinds of belief systems to express their individual spirituality. I no longer believe there is a “right” or “wrong” way to approach God. But, I understand why others are fearful to be that open.

In last week’s post, Lissa asked, “and what are we to do about it?” This is a situation where there is no clear answer, especially when different groups express love and compassion in such very different ways. All I can suggest is that we open our minds a little and try to stand in the shoes of those with whom we disagree. It didn’t happen quickly, but that’s what eventually worked for me.

What is your experience with organized religion? Do you still embrace the beliefs of your childhood, or have they evolved over time?

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Jennifer Shelton is a regular blogger for Owning Pink and has been working in education and consulting for over fifteen years. She is the founder of FemCentral, the Virtual Institute for Women, which just launched fabulous online e-courses on everything from Astrology to Life and Career Counseling. Register for Fall Semester now!
Related Links:
Fanaticism or Freedom?
Judge Not, Be Happy

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Emma S.
Emma S.about a year ago

Thank you for your thoughtful article.

Ellie Damann
.3 years ago

religion holds humanity back

Richelle R.
Richelle R.4 years ago

With all the religions, and all of their differerent sects of each, how can anyone say that their belief is the one that God prefers. Especially knowing what humans have done in God's name. ???

Lauren S.
Lauren Savard4 years ago

I personally believe strongly that there is a deity, and I believe that He is G-d Almighty, the G-d of the Judeo-Christian Bible. I believe that out of His great love for humanity, He sent His only begotten Son to pay the penalty of sin that we could not: death. "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of G-d is eternal life through Christ our LORD." (Romans 3:23) However, what is death. When I think of death, I assume that this means that one no longer exists. There is a belief that when an unrepentant sinner dies (meaning that they rejected Christ,) they cease to exist. This concept is known as annihilationism. I personally cling to this notion, not wanting to believe in a ever-burning Hell. However, many great Christians firmly believe that Hell is a place of eternal concious torment. At this point, I am very confused as to just what I believe about the punishment of sinners. However, I do know one thing: G-d is good. ALL He does is for a purpose, and that purpose is ultimately good, no matter how negative it seems from a human perspective. And more than that, G-d is love. (1 John 4:8) Read 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 for an excellent and Biblical definition as to exactly what love is.

I understand how the author feels about fundamentalists. I attend a fundamentalist church with my father about twice a month, and some of their views DO seem a bit extreme. However, they are dedicated Christians, and in need of just as much love as anyone.

DORIS L.4 years ago

I was raised Roman Catholic. Need I say more? Over time I evolved to considering myself a spiritual person, and well on my way to not believing in any God at all. I read a book called THE GOD DELUSION a while ago, and while many years ago I would've been confessing to a priest the horrible sin I had committed by reading it, I have to say what I felt upon finishing the book was profound RELIEF. I am quite capable of behaving myself without organized religion thank you and consider myself a good person.

John C.
John C.4 years ago

Organized Religion is more like a corporation than a place to show repect to a creator. It encompasses the practice of spiritual hubris, and has brokrn the trust of many. I don't think it is misunderstood at all, noe is it defensible on many occasions.

Lubna Ibrahim
Lubna twal4 years ago

god could not be the absolute goodness since he is the one who also created evilness and introduced it to the world !

that is what makes me so skeptic of all religions..

and if indeed jesus said " if u deny me infront of men , i will deny u infront of god " doesnt that insinuate a bit of evilness ?? why should i accept u against my will , isnt that a kind of dictatorship ? why would god or jesus use a kind of blackmail with humans who are weaker than him ? why cant he love him anyway , even if he ( the latter ) didnt accept him and denied him ? wouldnt that make humans more open and humbled by his unconditional love and automatically accept him as a savior ? without the usual mantra" if u accept me , u will go to heaven..if not,u will go to hell" ?

i have so many questions and when i pose them i get aggrressive reactions from people with faith ..accusations along with this absolute conviction that i will be doomed and go straight to hell :) and how would u know?

why dont u convince me instead of attacking me? why should i be obliged to lie to myself before lying to others with a pretense of accepting or believing in something out of fear and not out of absolute love and conviction ..i only believe that each religion has core values that should be totally respected but as for rituals in any religion is all man made ..

i believe that any scriptures of any religion contain many contradictions that if pondered on,may lead u to the path of schezophrenia !

Lynn C.
Lynn c.4 years ago

My experience with organized religion (something on the order of Jennifer's experience) was indoctrination and fear. Eventually, in my late teens, I saw the politics of ego and manipulation beneath the smarmy do-gooder attitude.
Jennifer's mother turning pale at the mention of someone questioning the existence of God said it all for me...why should anyone be terrified of a questioning mind that they will tell you was God-given on the one hand, and then curse you with Hell if you use it.
Read Eric Hoffer's little book called 'True Believer'. This very intelligent man (with no more than an 8th grade education) could see the mind and ego games that generates the whole reason humanity seems to believe it needs 'religion'.

Carrie M.
Carrie M.4 years ago

Thank you for explaining this, Lauren. It's very well-put. I suspected that what seems like hatred from the outside is over-zealous “love,” or, more likely, fear.
I was raised in a non-fundamentalist tradition, and I see it a different way. Simply put, God loves everyone. He doesn't "send" anyone to hell. (Anyway, Jesus’ emphasis was on heaven, not hell.) We’re all sinners, so no sin is bad enough to send a person to hell. No one will go there unless they firmly turn their back on him – if they look him straight in the face and say “I don’t want what you have to offer (that’s pride). But anyone who is seeking and loving is “eligible” for heaven. I think the verse "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love," (1 John 4:8) is familiar to - but misunderstood by - most Christians! It's clear to me that non-Christians are capable of (altruistic, selfless) love - so they must know God on some level. They only need to be "introduced" and God will do the rest. We don't need to win people to him. He WILL make himself known to loving, seeking people, even in spite of zealous Christians. He can do it - He sends angels to people!
As for me, I tell people about my faith - no guilt, it's just my life. I ask them about theirs, too, and we swap stories. I hope the grace of God is compelling enough to make them ask more. (I don't use tracts - that's too artificial.) My church operates a soup kitchen (helping people in need

Charles Webb
Charles Webb5 years ago

The proper way is to plant a seed. If it takes root and grows, all is good. If it doesn't, it was never meant to be. Just move on. "If you love me, keep my commandments" John 14:15