I was brought up in a catholic environment. My parents were never particularly religious – we never went to mass on Sundays or paid much attention to religious teachings. But somehow, I was always anti organised religion. Even as a child.

I grew up in a society dominated (in all senses of the word) by Catholicism and was forced to endure an education that was controlled by a religious order: the Christian Brothers. To the uninitiated, this sounds like it might be a nice, relaxed, respectful and spiritual environment in which to educate young men (it was a single sex school). The reality, however, could not be further from the truth.

Corporal punishment was still legal (and used very frequently) and parents were not encouraged to ask for explanations as to why their child came home with red hands (or wrists), or had trouble sitting down to dinner in the evening. It was just generally accepted that corporal punishment was necessary to ‘keep order and discipline.’

The favourite instruments of punishment included a cane – but the primary instrument was a leather strap about 40cm long. It consisted of two (sometimes three) layers of leather neatly sewn together. It was used when you were found talking in class, passing notes, failing to do homework, daydreaming, fighting, swearing etc. etc. The list of offences seemed endless. One particular Christian Brother has his leather strap made especially to his own design, with pennies sewn in between the layers of leather, to add weight and efficacy.

There were, to my recollection, three different types of Christian Brother. The sadist, the paedophile and the homosexual hiding from an unwelcoming society outside the order. I’m sure there were some religious people amongst them, but they were hard to find.

I survived my early school years, but I still remember clearly how I had to wrap my palms and fingers around the cool metal frame of my desk to help reduce the pain and stinging sensations that the leather strap invariably caused.

What, you may ask, does this childhood story of beatings, humiliation and subservience have to do with the topic ‘The Future of Religion’? The answer is quite simple. In the society where I grew up the sheer number of horror stories around abuse (sexual and physical) committed by religious orders in charge of schools has had, as you might expect, a negative effect on peoples’ belief systems as they grew older. As a result, the numbers attending mass have dropped dramatically.

We have seen the effects of institutionalised religion across many faiths around the world.

Power corrupts. Especially when backed up by a deity. The high number of psychopaths, paedophiles and other miscreants in such positions proves the point.

What we have seen is a growing and completely understandable questioning of the religious structures that have evolved in the last 2,500 years. And it is not just Christianity.

To quote Gautama Buddha:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

This is where our true nature comes into play. There are wolves and there are sheep. But the sheep are now arming themselves.

Religion, of the organised kind at least, is dying. It has brought human misery, greed, destruction and death to countless generations of innocents.

But according to science some people are genetically pre-disposed to belief and therefore attracted to people or organisations that provide answers (no matter how ridiculous they may appear to be).

This goes some way to explaining the seismic growth in cults in the 70s, drugs in the 80s, New Age in the 90s and what we were calling spirituality in the naughties.

Eastern mysticism, the teachings of the Buddha, and the practice of yoga are supplanting the omnipotent legacy of organised religion.

But it won’t be long before someone organises everything, starts making money, building compounds and the abuse begins all over again. The snake oil salesmen can smell fear, you know.

If humans are truly made in the image of God, then by Christ I am an atheist.

TS O’Rourke

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