If you find yourself drawn towards organised religion of any kind, you'll want to do your due diligence. This blog walks you through the things you need to consider before taking the plunge. The aim is to protect your sanity and the contents of your wallet and comes from one who knows.
The human need for belonging and acceptance is absolutely fundamental; we all need our tribe. All organised religions offer the possibility of belonging to a tribe. They will, in the main, have what the marketing industry would recognise as a 'lead funnel' that draws you into the tribe (see below). One typical example of a lead funnel is the Alpha Course created by Nicky Gumbell of Holy Trinity Brompton church in London.
With slick marketing and a friendly up-front sales pitch from local churches where existing attendees are encouraged to bring friends, the Alpha Course is a self-conscious lead funnel specifically designed to inspire action. In this case 'action' means a commitment to a particular (evangelical) version of Christianity accompanied by a financial commitment that is described as 'sacrificial'. As such, Alpha provides the perfect illustration of the points of due diligence that you may wish to undertake.
1. Be very clear about the way power is being used.
Alpha is presented as an open-minded opportunity to search for meaning in your life. It is, however, nothing of the sort. It is a lead funnel and the objective is to close down your curiosity so that you commit to the definition of the meaning of human existence arrived at by Holy Trinity Brompton's leadership. Now this may well be for you, but don't, for one minute fall for the 'just come along and chat about life' line. This is a sales pitch.
I would counsel anyone looking at a religious community to ask themselves the following question:
Is my curiosity welcomed and are my questions treated as legitimate and given respect in a way that makes me trust that I may be a sharer in wisdom rather that a recipient of instruction?
If the answer is no, then run!
2. What is the relationship between money, belonging and guilt?
Religious institutions are extremely expensive to run. Usually ministers must be paid and housed and bureaucracies funded. Where historic buildings are a feature, these too must be paid for and maintained. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't come cheap and on top of the outward giving and support that the institutions might give to groups they identify as being in need, the bill for each devotee can be high.
In my 25 years in Christian ministry the funding basis of the Church I served changed dramatically placing 100% of the burden on congregants. Annual guilt trips called 'Stewardship Campaigns' had to be pulled to ensure that the income kept up with costs. The implication was always that a feeling of belonging was allied to ability or willingness to pay. Again, despite the language I'm using, I actually make no judgement about whether this is morally right or wrong, but I do think it is a key matter that is not fully disclosed and should, therefore, form part of your due diligence.
3. Can you say 'amen' with a completely clear conscience?
Theology is important because it underpins what you are being asked to commit to. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that assent is given by use of the Hebrew word 'Amen'.
You may well feel perfectly comfortable saying amen to the idea that a wrathful god demands the death of his innocent son to somehow atone for your sins, or that a similarly capricious god might reward you with 70 virgins for killing yourself along with equally innocent men, women and children. Or even, at a much more fundamental level, you might be able to say amen to the idea that the god proposed is the creator of all things including, as brilliantly pointed our by Stephen Fry, a parasitic wasp that burrows into the eyes of children. If so, then go for it, but at least be prepared to ask yourself the question.
Pulling it All Together
The greatest gift you possess is your conscience. This, as St John Henry Newman the great Catholic theologian pointed out, is the most perfect expression of the voice of 'God'. The good exercise of conscience requires curiosity and good, reliable and trustworthy information. Any institution (of any kind) that responds to your legitimate and heartfelt questions with 'don't worry, trust us and have faith' is one from which you should run as fast as your legs will carry you!