This is the full-length version of the piece I wrote for AlterNet. I had to edit that piece somewhat for length; so I’m posting the full version here.
I’ve argued many times that religion is not only mistaken, but does more harm than good. But why do I think that is?
Sure, I can make a list of specific harms religion has done, from here to Texas. I’ve done exactly that. But that’s not enough to make my case. I could make long lists of harms done by plenty of human institutions: medicine, education, democracy. That doesn’t make them inherently malevolent.
Why is religion special — and specially troubling? What makes religion different from any other ideology, community, system of morality, hypothesis about how the world works? And why does that difference makes it uniquely prone to cause damage?
The debates about religion usually come in two types: “is religion accurate or mistaken,” and “is religion helpful or harmful.” And ever since I put together my best “mistaken” arguments, my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe in God, I’ve been trying to wrap up my “harmful” arguments in a similar nutshell.
But I’m realizing that I don’t have ten arguments for why religion is harmful. I don’t even have 57,842 arguments.
I have one.
I’m realizing that everything I’ve ever written about religion’s harm boils down to one thing.
Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.
It therefore has no reality check.
And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality… and extreme, grotesque immorality.
(I can hear the chorus already. “But not all religion is like that! Not all believers are crazy extremists! Some religions adapt to new evidence and changing social mores! It’s not fair to criticize all religion just because some believers do bad things!” I hear you. I’ll get to that at the end, after I make my case.)
The Proof Is Not in the Pudding
The thing that uniquely defines religion, the thing that sets it apart from every other ideology or hypothesis or social network, is the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities. Of course it has other elements — community, charity, philosophy, inspiration for art, etc. But those things exist in the secular world, too. They’re not specific to religion. The thing that uniquely defines religion is belief in supernatural entities. Without that belief, it’s not religion.
And with that belief, the capacity for religion to do harm gets cranked up to an alarmingly high level — because there’s no reality check.
Any other ideology or philosophy or hypothesis about the world is eventually expected to pony up. It’s expected to prove itself true and/or useful, or else correct itself, or else fall by the wayside. With religion, that is emphatically not the case. Because religion is a belief in the invisible and unknowable — and it’s therefore never expected to prove that it’s right, or even show good evidence for why it’s right — its capacity to do harm can spin into the stratosphere.
Let me make a comparison to show my point. Let’s compare religious belief with political ideology. After all, religion isn’t the only belief that’s armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. Religion isn’t the only belief that leads people to ignore evidence in favor of their settled opinion. And contrary to the popular atheist saying, religion is not the only belief that inspires good people to do evil things. Political ideology can do all that quite nicely. People have committed horrors to perpetuate Communism: an ideology many of those people sincerely believed was best. And horrors were committed by Americans in the last Bush administration… in the name of democracy and freedom.
But even the most stubborn political ideology will eventually crumble in the face of it, you know, not working. People can only be told for so long that under Communism everyone will eat strawberries and cream, or that in an unrestricted free market the rising tide will lift all boats. A political ideology makes promises about this life, this world. If the strawberries and cream and rising boats aren’t forthcoming, eventually people notice. (The 2008 election was evidence of that.) People can excuse and rationalize a political ideology for a long time… but ultimately, the proof is in the pudding.
Religion is different.
With religion, the proof is emphatically not in the pudding. With religion, the proof comes from invisible beings, inaudible voices. The proof comes from prophets and religious leaders, who supposedly hear these voices and are happy to tell the rest of us what they say. It comes from religious texts, written ages ago by prophets and religious leaders, ditto. It comes from feelings in people’s hearts that, conveniently, tell them what they already believe or want to believe. And the proof comes in the afterlife, after people die and can’t come back to tell us about it. Every single claim made by religion comes from people: not from sources out in the world that other people can verify, but from the insides of people’s heads.
So with religion, even if God’s rules and promises aren’t working out, followers still follow them… because the ultimate judge and judgment are invisible. There is no pudding, no proof — and no expectation that there should be any. And there is therefore no reality check, no self-correction, when religion starts to go to the bad place.
In fact, with many religions, that idea that you should expect to eat the pudding is blasphemy. A major part of many religious doctrines is that trusting the tenets of your faith without evidence is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue. (“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” -John 20:29)
In other words: The belief in invisible beings, undetectable forces, and events that happen after we die, provides a uniquely effective armor against the valid criticism, questioning, and deflation of ideas and institutions that do serious harm.
And religion builds on this armor with layer after layer. Among these insulating layers: The idea that letting go of religious doubts is a liberating act of love. The idea that skepticism and questioning are the same as cynicism, nihilism, and despair. The idea that religion operates in a different realm from the everyday world, and it’s unfair to hold it to normal standards of evidence. The idea that criticizing religion is inherently rude and intolerant. The “Shut up, that’s why” arguments so commonly marshaled against atheists: arguments meant not to address questions about religion, but to silence them. When coupled with the fact that the core belief is by definition unverifiable, these layers armor religion even more effectively against valid questions… thus undermining our ability to see when it’s become comically absurd, or wildly implausible, or grotesquely immoral. Or all three.
I want to give some specific examples of how this armor works. I want to talk about some of the most common — and most harmful — ways that religion causes harm. And I want to show how the invisible, unprovable, “don’t show me the money” nature of religion either causes that harm or makes it worse.
The Armor of God
Inspiring political oppression.
Religious extremists — whether the Taliban in the Islamic world or the Christian Right here in the States — don’t care about separation of church and state. They don’t care about democracy. They don’t care about respecting other people’s right to live differently from them. In very extreme cases, they don’t care about law, or basic principles of morality, or even human life.
None of this matters to them. What matters is making God’s will happen. In their mind, God created everything that exists… and therefore, God’s will trumps everything.
And since God’s will is invisible, inaudible, and entirely unverifiable, there’s no reality check on this dreadful path. There’s no reality check saying that their actions are having a terrible effect in the world around them. The world around them is, quite literally, irrelevant. The next world is what matters. And since there’s no way to conclusively demonstrate what will and won’t get you a good place in that world, or whether that world even exists… the sky’s the limit. There’s no way to test the assertion that God wants women to wear burqas and have clitoridectomies… or that God wants us to ban same-sex marriage and teach children dangerous lies about sex. The reality check is absent. The brake lines of morality have been cut.
Perpetuating political oppression.
The unverifiability of religion leads to political oppression in another way. It makes religious leaders and organizations uniquely powerful in the political arena — because their followers are typically taught from a young age to implicitly believe whatever their religious leaders say. They are taught that their religious leaders have superior virtue, with a hotline to God and his all-perfect morality. Indeed, they’ve been taught that trusting their religious leaders is a great virtue, and that asking them to support their claims with evidence is a grave insult: not only to the leaders, but to the entire faith, and even to God himself.
I want to give a specific example of this one. I want to talk about same-sex marriage.
In the United States, when same-sex marriage has been up for popular vote, it has, as of this writing, never, ever won. It has been consistently defeated at the ballot box, even when a well-organized, well-funded campaign has been behind it. It has been consistently defeated at the ballot box — largely because the full force of several organized religions, especially the Catholic and Mormon churches, have been marshaled against it. It has been defeated because these churches have been willing to tell grotesque, shameless lies about the effects of same-sex marriage — from “churches will be forced to perform weddings they oppose” to “kids will be taught explicit gay sex in public school.”
And it has been defeated because the followers of these churches implicitly trust their leaders. When faced with a newspaper editorial saying, “Same-sex marriage won’t affect public education” — and their beloved priest saying, “Same-sex marriage means your children will be taught about gay oral sex in third grade” — they believe their priest.
Even though their priest is lying through his teeth.
And because religion has no reality check, it is extraordinarily difficult to counter its flat-out lies… because ultimately, its claims rest on an unverifiable belief in an invisible God, who has yet to appear on CNN stating his political views. And when you combine this lack of reality check with the unquestioning trust in religious leaders, you have a recipe for religion to have grossly disproportionate power in the political arena. A power that is uniquely armored against questions about what really works to improve life and alleviate suffering and create justice in this world — the questions that politics are supposed to be about.
Succumbing to political oppression.
In the same way that religion’s unverifiability means there’s no check on oppressing other people, it means there’s no check on people accepting their oppression. At the hands of religion, or anything else.
If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife — and there’s no way to prove whether or not that’s true — people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith, to an appalling degree. More commonly, if people believe in infinite bliss in the afterlife, they’ll be more willing to accept an appalling degree of oppression and injustice in this life. From anybody. Oddly, this is often framed as a plus — “Religion gives people hope in hardship” — but I fail to see how encouraging oppressed people to suck it up until they get pie in the sky is a good thing. For the oppressed, anyway. Why it’s good for the oppressors is crystal clear.
Again: Because it’s a belief in invisible beings and events and judgments that happen after people die, religion short-circuits our reality checks. Including the reality check that looks at how we’re being treated and says, “This is bullshit.”
Individual abuses by religious leaders.
The same forces that give religious leaders disproportionate power in politics also give them disproportionate power in personal lives. When people are taught that religious leaders have a unique hotline to God’s morality, they’re more inclined to trust them without question. And that can lead to disaster.
Sexual abuse of children is the most obvious example. Children’s natural tendency to trust and obey adults, a tendency that can be abused by any authority figure, is multiplied a hundredfold when that authority seems to come from God himself.
But it’s not the only example. When the promise of infinite bliss in the next life is held out like a carrot dangled before a donkey’s nose — and there’s no way to know if the carrot is even there — people will let themselves be taken advantage of by religious leaders to an appalling degree.
And even if an individual believer decides, ‘Hey, wait a minute! It isn’t okay that the leader bilked me out of my savings/ used the hospital fund to buy a Bentley/ molested me at age seven”… who’s going to believe them? Religion’s armor against criticism means that even when someone begins to doubt, others in their belief community keep believing. And those others will reject any accusations made against the leader… no matter how credible or supported by evidence. The armor of God doesn’t just make believers vulnerable to religious leaders’ fraud and abuse. It ensures that even if they wise up to that fraud and abuse, their accusations won’t be believed.
Justification for bigotry.
Clearly, human beings don’t need religious justification for bigotry. We can be bigoted just fine on our own. But as powerful as bigotry is, it ultimately has a natural, if painfully slow, reality check. When people see that in reality, not all women are ditzy idiots, and not all black people are lazy criminals, and not all gay people are miserable and crazy… eventually, over years and decades, they can change their minds. (And if they don’t, their kids do. The strongest determining factor in whether Americans support same-sex marriage is youth.) Bigotry is strong… but reality, plus time, is stronger.
But when bigotry is justified by religion, this reality check gets shot in the foot. When bigotry is justified by the inaudible voice of God — and the very audible voices of people claiming to speak for God — the reality check saying that bigotry isn’t right gets easily drowned out.
Again, because the voice of God is inaudible, and the proof of the pudding is in the afterlife where nobody can see it… well, if it’s God telling you that blacks were condemned by God to serve whites, or that women were designed by God to defer to men, or that homosexuals have abandoned morality and defied God’s will, who are you to say it isn’t true? Sure, you have the reality of good gays and independent women and brilliant black people with outstanding leadership skills… but balance that against the word of the creator of the universe, and what’s going to win?
Especially when it’s a bigotry you’re already inclined to believe, and one that works in your favor? When bigotry is justified by the untestable voice of religious faith, what chance does inconvenient reality have?
Justification for violence and war.
But more so.
In the same way that religion drowns out the reality check saying that bigotry and oppression is wrong, it drowns out the reality check saying that hurting and killing people is wrong.
And the untestable belief in the afterlife is the biggest obstacle to this reality check. If you believe in a perfect eternal afterlife… then who cares about pain and death in this world? Compared with the eternal bliss/ torture of Heaven or Hell, pain and death in this world is a stubbed toe. Isn’t carrying out God’s will more important than a stubbed toe?
Kill them all. Let God sort it out.
Vulnerability to fraud.
Not just from religious figures. Not just from phony faith healers and prosperity gospel preachers and authors of bestselling psychic self-help books. (Although them, too.)
From everybody. From every Ponzi schemer and Nigerian email scammer and shady purveyor of Florida real estate.
When people are taught to let go of difficult questions and trust whatever religious authorities tell them; that it’s better to trust their feelings than their critical thinking skills; that evidence and reason are less important than faith; that “doubter” is a synonym for “sinner”… they become vulnerable to every cheater, chiseler, swindler, con artist, and late night infomercial huckster who’s lucky enough to cross their gullible paths. The idea that belief without evidence is a virtue doesn’t just inspire people to trust their religious leaders blindly. It inspires people to trust anybody blindly. Including people who are trying to rob them blind.
Quashing science and education.
Not just in a general, “making people value science and education less” way — but in specific, practical, harmful ways? Hamstringing stem cell research? Forcing abstinence-only sex education on kids? Teaching creationism in public schools?
When religion teaches that believing in the invisible is more important than understanding the perceivable… that personal faith is more important than critical thinking… that letting go of questions is a liberating act of love and trust… that believing things with no evidence is not only okay but a positive virtue… that unfalsifiable hypotheses are just ducky… that what God supposedly says about the world is more real what’s in the world itself…
Do I need to explain this any further? Do I need to explain how the “Facts take a back seat to faith” trope hammers science and education into the ground?
Quashing medicine and public health.
Religion, and its unverifiability, actively promotes the idea that the invisible afterlife is more important than the life we know exists. And therefore, it promotes the idea that even if a medical treatment or health policy would lead to less disease and death, it doesn’t matter. Even though condom help prevent the spread of AIDS, even though immunizing girls against genital warts helps prevent cervical cancer, even though stem cell research could lead to great advances in medicine… it doesn’t matter. What matters isn’t disease and death in this life. What matters is the next life. What matters is God’s will.
Which, again, we have no way of verifying. And which therefore, by the horrible freakish paradox of the armor of God, gets priority.
If we prioritized this life, we would never terrorize children by telling them they’ll be tortured in fire forever if they don’t obey our rules. We would never tell them to imagine putting their hands in a fire, to imagine the crackling and burning and screaming pain… and then to imagine doing that for a minute. An hour. A day. A lifetime. Eternity.
Not unless we were horribly abusive.
But when people think the next life is more important than this one — when people think the infinite burning and torture is really going to happen if their children don’t obey God’s word — they’ll gladly give their children nightmarish visions of pain and torture, dispensed by the Fatherly God who supposedly created them and loves them. They’ll do it without a second thought. When people prioritize their belief in an afterlife that, by definition, is impossible to prove or disprove, they effectively cut the reality check begging them to not terrorize and emotionally abuse their own children.
Teaching children about hell is child abuse. Nothing but the unverifiable promise of permanent bliss or torture in the afterlife would make loving, decent, non-abusive parents inflict it on their children.
I could go on, and on, and on. But I think you get the idea.
Yes, Even Moderate Religion Still Does Harm
Many believers will argue that the harm done by religion isn’t religion’s fault. Many will point out all the wars, bigotry, fraud, oppression, quashing of science and medicine, and terrorizing of children done for reasons other than religion. And many will argue that, even when this stuff is done in the name of religion, it isn’t really inspired by religion at all. It’s inspired by greed, fear, selfishness, the hunger for power, the desire for control… all the things that lead people to do evil.
And they’ll have a point. I’m not saying that religion is the root of all evil. I’m not arguing that a world without religion would be a blissful Utopia where everyone holds hands and chocolate flows in the streets. (And then we all die, because the chocolate is drowning us and we can’t swim because we’re holding hands.) I don’t know of any atheist who’d argue that. I know that the impulses driving evil are deeply rooted in human nature, and religion is far from the only thing to inspire it.
I’m saying that religion provides a uniquely stubborn justification for evil. I’m saying that religion is uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self-correction… and that this armor protects it against the reality checks that act, to a limited degree and in the long run, to keep evil in check. I’m saying that religion takes the human impulses to evil, and cuts the brake line, and sends them careening down a hill and into the center of town.
Yes — even moderate religion. Not to nearly the same degree as extreme religion, of course. If all religion were moderate, ecumenical, separate from government, supportive of science, and accepting of non-belief… well, atheists would still disagree with it, but most of us wouldn’t much care.
But moderate religion still does harm. It still encourages people to believe in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. And therefore, it still disables reality checks… making people more vulnerable to oppression, fraud, and abuse.
What’s more, moderate religion is in the minority. The oppressive, intolerant, reality-denying forms of religion are far more common, and far better at perpetuating themselves. And moderate religion gives these ugly forms credibility. It gives credibility to the idea that believing in things there’s no reason to believe is valid, and actually virtuous. It gives credibility to the idea that invisible worlds are real, more real and important than the visible one. It gives credibility to the idea that our seriously biased personal intuition is more trustworthy than logic or verifiable evidence. It gives credibility to the idea that religious beliefs, alone among all other ideas, should be beyond criticism; that the very act of questioning religion is inherently intolerant. (It also, I’ve found, has a distinct tendency to get hostile and decidedly un-moderate towards non-believers when questioned even a little.)
Without religion, we would still have community. Charity. Social responsibility. Philosophy. Ethics. Comfort. Solace. Art. In countries where less than half the population believes in God, these qualities and activities are all flourishing. In fact, they’re flourishing a lot more than they are in countries with high rates of religious belief.
We don’t need religion to have any of these things.
And we’d be better off without it.