Aug 20, 2009

On Control

"Religion is set up not to help people, but to control people."
I read this recently, and it's a pretty serious, and in many ways very accurate, challenge to all religious systems. Of course, I'm going to offer a dissenting opinion.

Firstly, invoking any term as broad as 'Religion' forces us to define the term before any constructive dialog can take place. Personally, I define religion the way I define many things - with metaphor. Specifically, the C.S. Lewis metaphor in which religion is analogous to a map.

Most interestingly to me - maps should be "set up" with no purpose. They are simply an accessible, navigable depiction of the real world. The closest thing I can think of to a map with a purpose would be a "treasure map"; it's probably accurate to say this describes some religions, or certain corruptions of some religions.

But to speak of a map being "set up" with a purpose doesn't make much sense, and so it is with religion. By and large, with maybe some notable exceptions, religions are developed not by a single intention, but over time by the accumulated wisdom of many people navigating the real world - both natural and supernatural (topic for further discussion elsewhere).

I think the crux of the misunderstanding of religion as a tool for control lies in a person's trust in the 'cartographers of religion' and their purposes. Let me explain with a few stories.

When my wife and I traveled to Brazil, we relied on taxi's to get around Sao Paulo. My iPhone data plan doesn't work overseas, so I was without my trusty Google Maps and GPS. :( When we arrived at the airport (after 16 hours of bus travel, mind you), we grabbed the closest taxi driver - trusting him to get us to our hotel. It was soon painfully obvious the driver didn't really know the geography or where he was going, and he made 3 stops to ask for directions at our expense. But we had no car, no map, no knowledge of the language; he had our luggage and our persons in his car with no other taxi's around, so what could we do? He was intentionally controlling us for his own benefit. Then to top it all off he over-charged (scammed) us for something we were sure we didn't owe. Our trust was mis-placed, and I would never trust him to drive me again, so I threw away his card. He didn't have a map, nor did he have his own knowledge of the area, and his intentions were bad! Sound like some peoples' encounters with religion?

Later on the same day, we were running low on Reals (Brazilian currency) and needed to find a currency exchange for travelers' checks. We talked to the hotel receptionists (who spoke English very well, despite how many times they apologized for their "poor English"), who arranged for another taxi to take us to a mall where there was a currency exchange. So we got in the taxi and the driver took us to the mall. But, once there, the driver (we don't speak any Portuguese and no-one else spoke English outside the hotel) found out the exchange place didn't exchange travelers' checks and we would need to go to a different mall. So again we trusted the driver and we set out to the next mall, but again no luck. At this point our taxi fare is well above the amount of Brazilian money we have, and we've been wandering around Sao Paulo aimlessly for over an hour and a half. We finally have the driver take us back to the hotel, where the receptionists arrange to lower the fare and put it on our hotel room so we don't need cash. On this little quest we had trusted the receptionists and the cab driver, and their intentions were good, but circumstance and a communication barrier meant we still didn't get where we wanted to go. Hmm ...

So, then they explain that the exchange market is down the road just over a mile - within walking distance from the hotel. They give us a map of the area, draw the path, and give us a landmark to look for - it's next to a Walmart - which means our American blood will be irresistibly drawn towards it. ;) We set out on foot, and I make the observation to Tiffany, "I like not having to rely on someone else to travel. I like being in control of ourselves." We easily find the mall with the exchange counter, we get the cash, are able to shop around and eat before we leave, and we even found a Catholic book store on the way back to the hotel!

Now what does this have to do with religion and control?

I think many or most people confuse religion - the map - with the individuals espousing a religion - the 'cartographers'. Some people, like our first cab driver, are out to use what they can to control others for their benefit. Some others, like our second cab driver, are well-meaning, but just fumble things up. Some few, like our receptionists, have just enough mix of good intentions and knowledge that they can use an existing map and add their own contribution to it to help us in our journey.

So, to say that religion is set up to control people is like saying the map of Osasco was set up to control my wife and I - to prevent us from getting to our destination. It wasn't. In fact, it was only in trusting the map, our guides, and ourselves that we were free to travel around town as we wanted to. So it is with religion(s). The good ones are maps to life; built out of the accumulated knowledge of trustworthy guides for us to navigate the journey of life. When you approach and understand them correctly, they are far from controlling - they offer us freedom to explore without getting lost.


Liz said...

Excellent article. Isn't it interesting, though, how one bad experience with a map rarely puts anyone off travelling altogether? And yet one bad experience with religion often makes people decide they want nothing to do with God. And it's also funny how a lot of people spend a lot of time getting lost before they eventually realise they need to look at the map.

Saint said...

I like your map metaphor. And it seems to me that the Catholic and Orthodox churches have the most detailed maps, since they've been around the longest. Of course, all the details might not be right, and many have been crossed off and corrected, but it's still a lot more helpful than the "do it yourself" maps that are popular nowadays. Ain't no GPS to Heaven.

Living A Liturgy said...

Have you ever written a post on intellectual agreement/disagreement with the Church? It's something my husband and I have been talking about

luke said...


it's totally Lewis's metaphor - not mine. ;)


I haven't written a post on intellectual assent to the church, but i've discussed it with a few people, including my pastor during confession ... I'll try to post on it soon.


Saint said...


Dissenting opinions have occurred throughout the entire history of the Church. Dialog is entirely healthy, and it's saved Christianity a few times (most notably from the Arian heresy at the Council of Nicaea). Just be sure you remain in Communion with the Church, that's the biggun.