A Reflection on 'Organized Religion' and the Oregon Shooter

Many years ago, a friend left her church because she had become disenchanted with "organized religion." Preferring to not enter into a discussion about this, I did not ask her about what had prompted the decision. Something was happening (or not happening) in her church that moved her to move out of the church she had known and attended since childhood. Although she never stopped loving and worshipping God, the separation between herself and her church was permanent. She could get pretty exercised about "organized religion," but as far as I know, she never took anyone's life over it.

As the details have been pieced together surrounding the horrific shooting that took place recently on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, the picture of Christopher Harper-Mercer, the angry and isolated young man behind the attack, has also come into focus. Among the various items and people that were on the receiving end of Harper-Mercer's hostility was "organized religion," and he even reportedly belonged to a group called "Doesn't Like Organized Religion."

As was the case with my friend, Harper-Mercer apparently was very exercised about "organized religion." But unlike her, it was enough for him to take lives over it. Nine of them.

As Harper-Mercer is also dead, there will be no opportunity to interrogate him about his motive for taking those nine lives. Nor will there be an opportunity to get an explanation for his animus toward "organized religion."

"Organized religion" is one of those phrases we use unthinkingly, although many of us experience our faith within its framework. What does "organized religion" mean, and why does it inspire negative or even hostile feelings in some people?

What is often called "organized religion" is really to be understood as institutional religion, where belief systems and rituals are systematically established. Our largest religious groups, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Bahá'í Faith, comprise institutional religions, whereas indigenous and folk religions, such as African, Native American and prehistoric religions, fall into the non-organized category.

Institutional religion is also characterized by official doctrine (or dogma), a hierarchical or bureaucratic leadership structure, as well as codification of rules and practices.

Those who dislike institutional religion frequently point to these latter aspects as reasons for having left their faith communities or for refusing to become part of them at all. For them, institutional religion is a roadblock rather than a bridge to faith or to God, to what American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910; he was also the brother of novelist Henry James) saw as the feelings, acts and experiences of individuals in response to whatever they consider the divine. Instead of achieving a deeper relationship with God, many come up against what they experience as an impersonal and complex behemoth that kills the soul and leaves them in spiritual isolation.

I suspect that this is what my friend may have experienced in her church, a "mainstream" denomination with its hierarchies, rituals, and dogmas. She wanted desperately to meet God in her church, but, for her, He never showed up.

And what about Christopher Harper-Mercer? Well, what about him? I can almost hear you asking. He was a murderer, who ended the hopes and dreams of nine human beings, some of whom were people of faith. What more needs to be said about him? Like growing numbers of Americans, he had described himself as "not religious, but spiritual" in the same breath that he denounced organized religion. Just as it will probably never be known why he killed nine people, it will never be known what he found so off-putting about institutional religion.

By many accounts, Harper-Mercer had a long list of personal problems. But I wonder whether he had at any point in his life some experience of "organized religion," a time where he had tried to cultivate a faith life, but abandoned it because the hierarchies, the rituals, and the dogmas just got in the way of his making contact?

As someone who is a member of a highly organized faith community, I am well acquainted with its range of distinguishing features. And yes, at times I have been perplexed, disappointed with and frustrated by my faith community. There are times when the rituals seem to obscure the very thing it is meant to reveal. It is at such times when I must remind myself that institutions created and run by human beings tend to do that.

However, I have remained in my sometimes imperfect faith community because faith (and faithfulness) is my part of the covenant we are in. In the thirty and counting years I have attended and worshipped in that community, it and the people in it, from clergy to fellow parishioners, have cared, comforted and corrected me when I needed those gestures. It is the place where I have known love and have tried to develop a mature faith. Their imperfections notwithstanding, the institutional religions still possess the time-tested rites and rituals that are activated from birth to death.

I want to be clear: I make no excuses for Harper-Mercer. He was a deeply troubled man who committed an evil act. The job of organized religion is not to provide psychoanalysis for those who may be in need of such treatment. At the same time, however, I would ask whether our organized religions have become so organized as to have ceased being the compassionate and nurturing places for those who need and seek them.