Many of my Christian friends have a view of the world in which they are a chosen few whom God has drawn into his fold. They see those outside their fold as needing saving and believe that it is their mission to try to convert people. My own conversion fitted nicely into their understanding of the way God uses them to spread the good news about Jesus, but I would beg to differ. In the 35 years since my conversion, I have often thought about the path which led to my conversion. I am firmly of the opinion that God had been working on me for most of my life to bring to the point where I came to know him as Jesus. I believe this is the case for all of us. That God has no favourites and loves each and every person desiring passionately to come into a full relationship with them, but loving them so much that He will not force their hand and exerts only the gentlest of influence over each and every one of us.
The person who has just been touched by God's love has become a valuable commodity. They are a potential new member waiting to be drawn into any church, temple, gurdwara, mosque or sect lucky enough to grab them first. They are a blank canvas waiting to receive instruction which will make sense of this new experience which has burst into their lives. Most religious communities are pretty benign, some even good, but others will exploit. The power of ideas over the frail human mind is awesome. Some are persuaded to sell all their possessions, others to lay down their lives as suicide bombers. Thankfully, only a few fall prey to such exploitation, but every religious group is keen to add to their number another member who can contribute to their costs, help with their work and above all adhere to their doctrines.
Loving God is not as simple at it might seem. God loves me and wants me to love Him, but He also loves everyone else with just as much passion and so His second desire is that we should love each other. If we allow God to influence our lives, we will be drawn into fellowship with others who love Him. But as soon as we gather together in groups to share our experience of God's love with others, we are vulnerable to all the troubles which beset human society. The greatest of these is the desire of some to sit back and organise others into doing all the work. Although Jesus was quite explicit in his instructions, those who would lead his followers have in the main completely ignored his command: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave"
It would not be so bad if religious leaders were only interested in the financial exploitation of their followers, but it also seems part of human nature to elaborate and expand on the simple truth to create elaborate doctrines and impose them on others. The mind of the new convert is a blank canvass ready and waiting to receive all sorts of nonsense. Hungry to learn more about their new experience of God's love, they are at their most vulnerable.
I can only speak from experience, but as a one day old Christian, I went to an evening service geared at converting people and following the call, went into a back room with a "councillor" to be instructed in my new faith. I was told "now that you have come to believe in God, you must also believe in the Devil because he is going to try to put doubts in your mind." Still being of sound mind, and having taken 28 years to reach a belief in God, I was not in a hurry to believe in any other supernatural beings and left determined never to return to that place. But 35 years on, the more I think about it, the more I realise that such teaching is no less than an assault on a person's mind. It is what I call a logic trap. The mind gets trapped in a circle with any thought doubting the devil's existence being a direct confirmation of his existence.
I want at this point to make a clear distinction between what I call religion and what I call faith. These two words are ill defined in English and faith is used as an alternative to both religion and belief. There is however no single word in common usage to describe one's relationship with God. So I have decided to use the word faith to describe a person's relationship with God. A religion, on the other hand is merely a set of doctrines and practices used to bond a group of people together which may or may not exploit the faith of its individual followers.
Religions become dangerous when they become adsorbed into a culture and used to justify all sorts of oppression and exploitation. Even worse, they can be used as a tool of government. While the Christian Churches have excelled at these distortions of religion over most of the last two millennia, Militant Islam has now taken over as the most dangerous form of religion. Above all else, religion is used by men as a tool to oppress women.
I would define "True Religion" as something which brings a group of people together to share their faith and preaches nothing but the love of God for us and our response in trying to love others. Any leaders, as such, remain ordinary members of the group, working for a living and not receiving any privileges. Unfortunately, "ordinary" religion flourishes feeding on the reality of God's love; for whenever someone prays to God, they get through and open themselves to the experience of God's love.
The great art of religious leadership is to manipulate their follower's beliefs such that their experience of God is limited and controlled. I have remonstrated with God over this issue, but the answer has always been the same. There are two principles at work, one is free choice and the other is love. Because God loves us, He desires our love. Love must be freely given and while religious institutions have many faults, they do provide an environment in which individuals can grow in love of God.
The most effective way known to man of manipulating people's beliefs is by the use of Scripture. Evangelical Christians refer to the Bible as "The Word of God". Other religions also have their scriptures and those who preach a similar fundamentalist line. The best scripture is ambiguous and written in a language which ordinary people cannot understand. This allows religious leaders freedom to interpret and bend the original meaning to fit their need.
I once went to a rally in a football stadium led by one of the world's most famous evangelists. His message was a distortion of the meaning of the Bible passage he quoted from, yet at the end when he gave the call to come forward, those who responded covered an impressive fraction of the pitch. Religion may be nonsense, but God is real. For all their faults, religions do provide an environment in which individuals can enter into a relationship of love with God.