The problem with religion-1: Religious individuals and institutions

The author Matt Ridley made an interesting observation: “The Asian tsunami was not an act of god but 9/11 was.”

I think that quote makes a good starting point for the next series of four posts that deal with the problem of religion. The posts are in response to a discussion that originated in a previous post and although I did not specifically intend to have them start today (I am one of those who thinks that there is far too much emphasis on commemorations and memorials to tragedies), there is no question that the perpetrators of the atrocity committed on September 11, 2001 are emblematic of the problem with religion, and the dangerous mix that occurs when people of devout faith believe in life after death and are sure they know what god wants them to do and will reward them if they do it.

In particular, what I am responding to is the following comment that, by pointing to instances where religion also inspires some people to do good, argues against my critique of religion as a negative influence in society:

Would you discount the influence of religious institutions on, for example, the pre-civil-war abolitionist movement, the US civil rights movement of the 60’s and the liberation theology movement in Latin America? And would you discount the activities of religious charity organizations in responding to natural disasters such as the tsunami and the Katrina? Would you also discount the activities of local religious organizations who regularly contribute food and material support to the poor and homeless in the Cleveland area? And what about those religious organizations that are currently calling for social justice in places like Darfur and elsewhere around the world?

I am certainly not arguing against your notion that religious has been — and will continue to be — used as a weapon by those who would unjustly wield political and economic power over others. But it seems to me fairly easy to come up with examples in history where religious organizations have operated to support the poor, to ease suffering, and to call for liberation of the oppressed.

This is a familiar argument that basically states that since there are some people who do good things in the name of religion, that means that religion as a whole cannot be bad. I agree with the author that it is easy to come up with examples of religious people and groups who try to do good things but is anyone, even the most ardent anti-religionist, really arguing that all people who profess religion are evil or incapable of doing good? There have always been people fighting for social justice and some have found support for their mission in religion and others have found support in secular sources. But that is not the point.

What is actually argued are two things: that religion has never been a necessary condition for goodness and morality, so that that particular claim to its value is spurious; and that the doctrines and practices of the institutionalized religion has largely been a negative influence in society through the ages.

In fact, the very examples quoted above illustrate the point I am making because they illustrate the actions of people acting outside of, or marginal to, institutionalized religion. If giving “food and material support to the poor and homeless in the Cleveland area” is a good Christian thing to do, why is this left to small under-funded groups, religious and non-religious alike? Why is this not done as part of official policy in this so-called Christian country? We know that some Churches are quite wealthy. The Vatican, for instance, has immense assets. Why do they not use those assets to give more to the poor?

One has to distinguish between the actions of religious individuals and small groups (acting as independent agents following their consciences) and religion’s historical role as serving the interests of the ruling classes. What I am rejecting is the argument of religious apologists that the good actions of a few religious people can immunize religious institutions against the charge that can be laid safely at their doorstep of centuries of widespread collusion with oppressors.

The basic question is where, historically, has religion as an institution stood in relation to oppression? What has been the role of the religious institutions that represent the majority of the population in those countries whose leaders also share their religious beliefs? (Small religious sects like the Amish or the Shakers are typically not part of the ruling class and often consider themselves to be among the out-group. Hence their role in the struggle against oppression may well be different from those religious institutions that represent “official” religions of nations. In fact, as I will discuss in a forthcoming series on the evolutionary basis of altruism, small groups tend to be much more cooperative and supportive of one another than large groups.)

In what follows, I am going to use examples from Christianity but not because it is particularly better or worse than other religions. One can find the negative influences in all the religions wherever they form the majority and are part of the state apparatus, even unofficially. Consider the disgraceful treatment of women and apostates in Muslim countries, the appalling treatment of Palestinians in the Jewish state of Israel, and the inhumane treatment of the so-called “untouchable” caste that was condoned by higher caste Hindus for centuries in the majority Hindu country of India.

Why have we seen consistent patterns of oppression by religious groups of other people? It is worthwhile quoting Sam Harris from his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 80):

Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments. One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings. Consequently, faith inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Islamic terrorism is recent example of this sort of behavior. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation.

Religious apologists tend to disavow the evil actions done in the name of religion by saying that those people have misunderstood the “true” will of god and misinterpreted the religious texts from which that will has been discerned. Such apologists tend to think that it is only they who have discerned the “true” meaning of religion and god’s will.

Harris responds to that argument too (p. 11):

You probably think the Inquisition was a perversion of the “true” spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was. The problem is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for nearly five centuries. It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently – though isn’t it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith have failed?

It is always possible to retrospectively look back on history and cherry pick, treating as truly religious just those actions that by our own current standards are “good” things and rejecting those that are “bad”. What needs to be looked at is what religious people have done when their religion has been the dominant group in a society. Have they used the state power that was so accessible to them to create peace and justice in their societies? Just to pose the question is to know the answer.

Next: Religion’s role in racism and colonialism

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher on Bush, Larry Craig, and religion

Here are more of Maher’s New Rules.


  1. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    I think that this goes back to the issue of
    your use of the word “consistently”. No one
    was arguing that religion was all good or even
    consistently good. It was you in your
    earlier post who used the word “consistently”
    and to be honest I am still confused
    now about what that word means for you. Is
    it a matter of degree? Of impact? Of not
    being “marginalized”? Does having a
    “marginalized” religious perspective mean that
    your perspective does not properly count as
    “religious”? And in what context?

    Also, I am having some questions understanding
    your definition of “institutionalized relgion”.
    Please give me one example of what you mean by
    this word. What is the essential element of
    being institutionalized vs. non-intitutionalized?
    If a church or a denomination
    or a cooperative of churches provides regular
    financial support, and volunteers to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, don’t these
    groups count as “institutional”? If the
    religious charity organization collects
    millions of dollars for disaster
    victims, how is this not an “institutional”
    activity? Aren’t these activities examples
    of good things done by religious institutions?
    And if not, why not?

  2. Natarajan says

    “Since some people do good things in the name of religion, religion as a whole cannot be bad” is not what I’d tried to convey. I apologize for being unclear. (Since I’ve failed to keep this short, I’ll summarize: members of religious communities have a broad range of overlapping interests and needs, concerns, social power, etc.; and arguments from/in and actions by these communities take place in such a context; and that context can’t be ignored when considering religion in the world.)

    That it is easy to come up with examples of religious people who do good things is, as you note, both obvious and vacuous. What I had aimed for was to show people who have justified helping outside their community using the rhetoric of their religions. The intent wasn’t to contrast good/bad, religious/nonreligious individuals to argue that religion is benevolent, but to suggest a different formulation and focus. Communities can use religious discourse to advance their chosen ends, be they progressive ones like ending slavery or regressive or outright evil ones like perpetuating slavery or millennialist policies towards the Middle East. That is, religious ideas influence the world as ideology (in a non-pejorative sense).

    But what a particular idea means to communities that accept/reject it, and how they use it is situated in their history, sociology, economics, etc. Practices and beliefs within a sufficiently large religious community will differ to reflect the needs of subgroups of competing interest. Who makes an argument, and who it’s intended for, matter a lot. E.g., those in power might focus on elements of their religion (such as those fostering shared group identity; or slaveowners justifying slavery) that help consolidate their power. Those oppressed (as in the US slavery example; or liberation theology in Latin America) might try emphasize elements that help them organize against their oppression, or (as in the Marx quote) to help them bear it. It misses something important to dismiss Brazilian workers embracing liberation theology because it’s not mainstream/institutional Catholicism.

    This diversity of thought and especially political interest within and among religious groups (theological and political) doesn’t seem to be something that can be ignored casually without falling into error. Should we be less skeptical of broad claims about religion (or any particular religious community) than of analogous claims about nations, races, or political parties as monolithic entities?

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