Why Religion is Bad -- The Comprehensive Argument
I suppose everybody needs to justify their position if they're going to be an outspoken opponent of something as widespread and culturally accepted as religion. Unfortunately, when I started thinking about writing out my comprehensive argument against religion, I realized I would have to write at least two or three full sized books to encompass the whole thing. Luckily, the job has been done before me. There are several very good books which go into great detail about various aspects of the argument against religion. I will make reference to them in the paragraphs that follow. Those who wish to disagree with my position would do well to read these books in full before presenting their case, as I have no desire to rewrite perfectly good books simply so dissenters can avoid doing their own research.
With that being said, I will proceed with what can only be described as an outline of my comprehensive argument against religion.
I will begin with the strongest argument. When I refer to faith, I mean the belief in a thing despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and/or a complete or virtually complete lack of evidence.Faith, quite simply, is the worst thing man has ever invented. For a detailed account of why science based empiricism is the only possible means to acquire knowledge, please read http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/science-vs-religion/ .
With that out of the way, I can now define religion. Before doing so, however, I must make a disclaimer. I realize that there are differing views on what constitutes religion. I am taking the liberty of imposing my own definition so that you, gentle reader, will understand what I am fighting against. If you disagree with my definition, that's fine. You can define it in any way you choose, and where your definition disagrees with mine, you may assume that I am not fighting actively against that aspect of what you call religion.
Religion is the belief in a reality other than that described by scientific and empirical methods, and the practice of the consequences of that belief. I realize that this is a very broad definition, and I intend it to be so. I include homeopathy, crystal healing, astrology, numerology, palmistry, and a host of other non-scientific practices and beliefs in the realm of religion. In short, religion is any belief system based on faith.
I am not so naïve as to believe that all woo-woo beliefs are equally dangerous. I would certainly rather live in a world full of Wiccans than a world full of Muslims. If astrology was the worst woo-woo in the world, I think it would be a pretty ok world to live in. Having said that, I hold the monotheist “Big Three” in the highest contempt among religions. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are scourges upon the earth and possibly the single greatest impediment to human happiness yet invented by man.
Nevertheless, I am attempting to create a full picture, and I must start with broad strokes. Faith is the worst idea man has ever invented. Assuming you have read my article on science and knowledge, you understand that anything which is taken on faith is necessarily less likely to produce the desired results than that which is believed because of empirical evidence. With this in mind, we can say the following with certainty:
Anything based on faith that purports to increase human happiness is necessarily less likely to produce human happiness than a scientific effort to produce human happiness.
Anything based on faith that purports to increase human morality is necessarily less likely to increase human morality than a scientific effort to increase human morality.
Anything based on faith that purports to alleviate fear of death is necessarily less likely to alleviate fear of death than a scientific effort to alleviate fear of death.
I realize that there will be many objections to these statements, but I propose that they are all based on misunderstandings and fallacies. I will attempt to address as many as possible.
Humans are irrational creatures. They need more than cold hard science.
It is often argued that even though religion is irrational by definition, it is still useful because some human experiences are irrational. Religion, it is proposed, is a way for humans to constructively avoid reality for their own benefit. Some people are born severely disadvantaged, or very sick. Religion, for them, is a good thing, since it allows them to hope for something better. Sometimes, believing that a miracle (or an afterlife) is possible is enough to keep someone going when they might just give up otherwise.
I cannot refute every story of hope inspired by religious belief. I do not believe it is necessary to do so. I imagine that many of these stories are genuine, and there are people in the world who have found genuine happiness from religious beliefs – happiness they would not have otherwise found. Nevertheless, I believe the harm from religious belief greatly outweighs the good. I'll get to why religion is bad, but first, I will justify my belief that religion isn't particularly good at helping humans through their irrationalities.
Logic. It is possible for an invalid argument to produce true results. However, valid arguments always produce valid results, and valid arguments with true premises always produce true results. Though empiricism doesn't produce epistemological certainty, the analogy is still good.. Bad science will sometimes produce true results, but it is overwhelmingly more likely that good science will produce true results. Returning to human happiness, it is overwhelmingly more likely that an empirical exploration rather than a religious exploration into what makes humans happy will give us reliable ways to facilitate human happiness en masse. Put simply, the exception does not negate the rule.
Empirical data. Recent studies1 have indicated that religious happiness may be so much snake oil. Admittedly, there is very little hard data on this topic, and there have certainly been detractors of the studies that do exist2 However, it's worth noting that with as much money and power as the Vatican and other religious companies possess, there is no reliable peer reviewed data backing up the claim that religious beliefs demonstrably increase human happiness as a rule.
Atheists. The simple fact is, there are an awful lot of happy atheists in the world. I can't find a shred of reliable data indicating that atheism can even be correlated with increased stress associated with living or dying. Let's not even talk about causation. If the correlation is so elusive, how could we even begin to suggest that atheists are somehow less happy or fulfilled in their lives?
Personal Experience. I know that this is weak evidence, which is why I'm listing it last. Nevertheless, I think it's worth mentioning. My own escape from religion was the gateway to happiness. Looking back, I can't imagine going back to religious belief. I could not give up the happiness I experience knowing that the world is fathomable, and I don't have to try to make sense of things based on other people's faith. Furthermore, in the decade and a half that I've been active in atheism, I've talked personally to hundreds of people who have either grown up atheist or deconverted from theism, and overwhelmingly, they are all happy people who don't fear death and don't seem to have any need for hope in miracles.
I wrote an article on meaning and purpose in life. If you have not read it, you should do so now.
Having read the article, you now understand the second part of my response to the objection. To put it succinctly, the question of “meaning in life” is rather nonsensical in a religious context. Atheists and theists both have the same sense of “meaning.” Theists add a layer of complexity that is neither necessary nor coherent, and they sell it to each other, all the while ignorant of the fact that they're just throwing pixie dust around.
It doesn't take magic to find meaning. There are theists who feel unfulfilled as well as atheists. Again, I have seen no reliable data indicating that theists, as a whole, are any better equipped than atheists to find and experience a satisfying sense of self-actualization. I keep pointing to the lack of evidence for two reasons, and these are the crux of my argument:
It is downright shocking that there is no evidence whatsoever that theism increases human happiness. All that supports the claim is personal anecdote and “common sense” (otherwise known as intuition). Everybody “knows” that religion helps people, but curiously, nobody can demonstrate it empirically. Again, with all the money and power behind religious companies, shouldn't there be some reliable data? In all the world's religions, there isn't a single scientist who can demonstrate that religion is good for people? Really?3
If there is no reliable evidence that religion is good for people, and we still believe it, aren't we believing it based on.... faith?
I must also make note of a glaring error in the argument that people need something to give them meaning and comfort – there's no evidence that it's true! Sure, there are people who are afraid of dying, and people who feel like they have no meaning in life, but there is not a shred of evidence I've ever seen indicating that these feelings are a problem in need of a solution. Humans also feel jealous, depressed, angry, and listless from time to time, but we don't think of these feelings as needing a solution. We recognize that they're part of being human. So, too, is a sense of insignificance. By what logic did we decide that we must eradicate this particular emotional state from humanity? Is it not true that many people have done great things after searching for meaning in life? Is it not true that many people, fearing their own mortality, have striven to prolong their own lives as well as the lives of others?
Religions that address meaning and mortality are apparently creating a problem and then selling the solution. Throughout this entire article, we will see this theme recurring time and again. Where religion adds something to humanity, it is unnecessary, and either neutral or negative. Rather than exploring the human psyche and our natural sense of purpose, millions of people are spending their time claiming to have solved a problem they didn't have in the first place! Religion has become their meaning, to be sure, but without religion, we have no evidence at all to suggest that they would not have found some other meaning. In fact, it would be quite ludicrous to suggest that two thirds of the world's population would wilt away from aimlessness if they had not been brought up in a religious culture.
Science takes away the sense of wonder and awe. People need these to cope with the majesty of the universe.
Horse-hockey. I wrote an article about this, too. Admittedly, this article is mostly a book report on chapter 3 of Richard Dawkins' book, Unweaving the Rainbow. In order to fully comprehend why science does not take away wonder and awe, I recommend reading it in its entirety. Here's my article if you just want to read the condensed version of the argument:
While you're at it, I recommend watching Carl Sagan's television series, Cosmos, in its entirety. Sagan was astonishingly good at instilling people with awe, using phrases like “pale blue dot” to describe earth as it looks from the edge of our solar system.
Science answers “how.” Religion answers “why.”
No. It doesn't. Religion purports to answer the question “why” but the answer is wrong. Again, we're back to square one. If it's true that humans are better off believing that a sentient being created the universe, or that a giant god masturbated into his hand, put his cum in his mouth and then spit it out, forming humans from his own seed, where's the evidence? There is no evidence that people implode into fits of existential crisis if they believe the truth – that humans are part of an entirely natural process which happened without a creator or magic. If there's no evidence, there's no reason to believe.
1.5 Faith Revisited
Recall that the whole section you just finished is supposed to be about faith. It may seem that I have deviated a bit, but in fact, I have not. I want you to look over the “objections” I just dealt with and recognize a simple truth. Though they are often mentioned when someone attacks faith, they are not, in fact, defenses of faith itself, but of religion. Yet, religion itself is, by definition, dependent on faith. The argument, then, is circular:
1.Faith is good.
2.You should have faith that faith is good.
3.Religion is good.
4.You should have faith that religion is good because it's faith and people need faith.
5.People need faith because they need faith. You should believe this because it's faith.
In short, those who would object to my criticism of religion as a whole seem to have the perception that I am the one who must prove my point. On the contrary, it is religion which has never demonstrated its worth to humanity. All we have is the solemn word of those who practice it that it is a good thing. Good critical thinking demands that a person who makes a claim must demonstrate the truth of it before expecting it to be accepted as truth. Religion sells itself as an “answer to life's problems” in one form or another. (This includes the other woo-woo as well. Astrology, homeopathy, and other “alternative” beliefs are just as “religious” as Christianity.) This is the claim.
We live in a period where immense data is available for scientists to study. If religion is good for society, someone should prove it. Until then, it is a faith based system from bottom to top. Those of us who doubt the claims of the religious are in the epistemological right until and unless the proof is offered.
The Works of Faith
"With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." These are the now famous words of Steven Weinberg, and I believe they represent a fundamental truth about religion. Before you can completely understand this argument, you will need to become well versed in the evolutionary origins of morality as well as what morality is (and more importantly, what it is not). This will require some considerable reading on your part, but if you read nothing else I recommend, the following books and articles are crucial. To begin with, here are my own writings, available online:
For a much more complete picture of morality from the ground up, you should read the following books:
The Origin of Morality, Matt Ridley
The Moral Animal, Robert Wright
At this point, we will take it as read that human morality is a function of game theory acting upon complex social interactions in complex societies. People's value judgments about various actions are dependent on what the actions mean in the context of society and interpersonal interactions.
We will also take it as read that science can quantify human morality, both at the instinctive level and the more subjective cultural level. In other words, we can note that all people across all cultures have an instinctive desire to be treated fairly, though what counts as fair can vary substantially from culture to culture.
With these premises, we can begin to examine religion and determine if it's even possible for religion to improve upon human morality. First, what does it mean when we say “improve human morality”? What is more fair than fair? What is more good than good? These are not flippant questions. If science is right, human morality is a function of a fixed instinct interacting with the external environment. We can't very well change our instinct. That's far beyond our capability, and in any case, would take far too many generations to make it worth discussing in this context. The only thing we can change, then, is the environment. Science has demonstrated repeatedly that we can very easily change people's behaviors by changing their environment, but we don't even need science to figure this out.
Next time you are out for a drive, look around you and notice that for the most part, all of the cars are driving essentially the same speed. Furthermore, the speed they're driving is at least roughly correlated to the posted speed limit. If you happen to see a police car while you're driving, notice that everyone's speed comes rapidly in line with the speed limit when they see the policeman. Changing the environment changes behaviors. It's not rocket science.
How could religion change behaviors in a way that science could not? The “Big Two,” Christianity and Islam, promise horrendous eternal torture for people who don't behave correctly, but does that work? Are Christians and Muslims more moral than anyone else on the planet? One could conceivably argue that with regard to certain behaviors, they are. Certainly more Christians and Muslims than atheists pray daily, but this is a circular argument. Prayer is arbitrarily called “good,” and the devout are praised for being good, but is it good? Only if you happen to believe the religion, which, of course, insists that you believe things on faith.
The question, then, is whether or not religious people are more moral in the genuine sense of the word. Let's pick an arbitrary situation: Two men pass on the street. As they do, one man notices that the other has dropped a hundred dollar bill. Are religious people any more likely than atheists to return the money? I think not. For one thing, again, there is simply no evidence. We are asked to believe that religion makes people more moral because the religious insist that it does. We are not given any proof. In fact, the evidence seems to indicate the opposite. Atheists in America make up a startlingly small percentage of the prison population. Atheists are more likely to stay married than theists. Teens taught abstinence-only education (which is a decidedly religious viewpoint) are more likely to engage in unsafe sex.
There are societies made up almost exclusively of atheists. Except for a dearth of churches, it's very difficult to find any significant differences from theist societies if one takes a stroll down main street. People still stand in line at the bank, and they don't cut in front of one another without asking permission. Mothers still love their children and make sacrifices for them. Fathers still work overtime for a month to save money for a new swing set for the back yard.
Of course, there are some differences. I can't think of a single atheist society in which women are forced to cover their entire bodies and be escorted by a male family member anytime they go out of the house. There are no atheist societies I'm aware of that prohibit abortion, even in the case of rape. I've never heard of an atheist society in which women are put to death for the crime of being raped.
I'm not suggesting that atheist societies are utopias. Far from it. However, there are “moral” behaviors espoused by many religions that simply would not – I dare say could not – reasonably come about except for religion, and the one thing they have in common is they're all bad. Put simply, it doesn't take religion to figure out any moral behavior at all, precisely because morality isn't some arbitrary list of dos and don'ts in the sky. It's inherent to humans, and we can figure it out on our own.
Extending the logic into the realm of principle, we can paraphrase Dr. Weinberg and say that with or without religion, good people will form good societies and bad people will form bad societies. For good people to form bad societies, that takes religion. Certainly there have been despots who have not needed religion to set up fascist regimes or to exploit working classes for the benefit of the aristocracy. One of the sad facts of life is that some people will do bad things. However, and this is an absolutely crucial point, there is a big difference between people who do bad things without religion and those who do bad things in the name of religion. Without religion, bad people cannot justify their actions by appealing to religion.
Was Hitler a bad person? Yes. Do I need religion to figure that out? Of course not. However, Hitler justified his actions by appealing to religion.
Just as the Jew could once incite the mob of Jerusalem against Christ, so today he must succeed in inciting folk who have been duped into madness to attack those who, God's truth! seek to deal with this people in utter honesty and sincerity.
-Adolf Hitler, in Munich, 28 July 1922
In the life of nations, what in the last resort decides questions is a kind of Judgment Court of God.... Always before god and the world the stronger has the right to carry through what he wills.
-Adolf Hitler, speech in Munich, 13 April 1923
Providence shows no mercy to weak nations, but recognizes the right of existence-only of sound and strong nations....
This Jewish bolshevist annihilation of nations and its western European and American procurers can be met only in one way: by using every ounce of strength with the extreme fanaticism and stubborn steadfastness that merciful God gives to men in hard times for the defense of their own lives....
We have suffered so much that it only steels us to fanatical resolve to hate Our enemies a thousand times more and to regard them for what they are destroyers of an eternal culture and annihilators of humanity. Out of this bate a holy will is born to oppose these destroyers of our existence with all the strength that God has given us and to crush them in the end. During its 2,000-year history our people has survived so many terrible times that we have no doubt that we will also master our present plight.
-Adolf Hitler, in a recorded radio address, 24 Feb. 1945
Could Hitler have found a way to justify his attempt to exterminate the Jews without reference to the Bible or religion? I don't know. However, I do know that using only legitimate, empirical information, there is no way to reconcile such an act with what we all inherently recognize as good. Let me say that again: There is no basis in natural human morality to justify acts of heinous cruelty. Those who commit such acts are in the wrong, and we may call them wrong without fear that they will justify their actions as good based on faith.
Let's go back to the definition of faith again, and we should be able to see that logically, religion can only add evil to the world. Any action that is truly moral can be explained and encouraged naturally. Any particular religion can only do one of two things – encourage people to do what is good naturally, and add nothing, or encourage people to do additional things it declares – on faith – to be moral. Since these things are not naturally moral, they can only be one of two things – neutral or immoral.
Read over that again. Without religion, people can figure out naturally all that is moral, for morality is an innate and natural phenomenon. Religion, if it adds anything at all to morality, can only be adding neutrality or immorality.
Returning yet again to “The Big Three,” we notice several notable additions to the human moral code. In all three, various sexual thoughts and practices are strictly forbidden. Science has told us that most, if not all, of these prohibitions are actually quite harmful. Homosexuality is normal. Masturbation is normal. Enforced lifelong monogamy is downright cruel.
Here, I must ask you to read yet another thorough treatment of a subject. I will again provide my own online writing as well as books for those who wish to explore the matter in much greater depth:
For more in depth treatment, please read:
The Red Queen, Matt Ridley
Evolution's Rainbow, Joan Roughgarden
The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe, Jack Goody
The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
There is another aspect to religious “morality” that must be addressed. In fact, I think if we were to discard everything I have said thusfar, this one aspect of religion would still qualify it as a source of human misery. Religion is inherently divisive. Think about it. There are hundreds of thousands of religions in the world (if we count sects and other sub-groups as individual religions). While there are certainly a few that teach tolerance of other beliefs, there is at the heart of each religion a basic truth: This is the correct path. At its least divisive, this core belief is relatively harmless. Perhaps there's a little smugness within the flock, but by and large, they're quite tolerant of those who “haven't yet discovered the truth” or are “on their own path.”(4)
At its extreme, however, the divisiveness of religion is devastating. I wonder how many families have been torn apart when a family member marries outside of the family religion. How many parents don't talk to their children anymore after learning they've become atheists? For that matter, how many atheists find that they simply can't maintain friendships with Christians because Christians are taught that atheists are bad people?
Again, I must emphasize that divisiveness is not the sole milieu of religion. It doesn't take religion to invent racism or sexism. Humans do those things quite well without the help of religion. However, I must return to the argument I made above: Humans can figure out how to be inclusive without the need of religion. If religion adds anything to the discussion, it is either neutral or negative. If it were not for religion, what possible reason would all those families have for refusing to attend their children's weddings? Why would they ostracize their friends and families if they didn't believe God wanted them to?
Sure, without religion, there would still be lots of division in human society. It's part of our nature. However, as with morality in general, religion fosters and encourages new criteria for divisions. It adds divisions that would not exist without it. Religion facilitates large groups of people forming us-them dichotomies and then acting en masse on beliefs regarding these artificial divisions. There can be no other conclusion.
The history of religion might be accurately called the history of impeding science. Particularly in the Christian West, we see stark evidence that when science and religion clash, it is often science that loses the battle. In the interest of brevity, I will not bore the reader with a laundry list of individual acts of religious censorship. The internet is full of such examples, and one is as good as the other.
Instead of trotting out examples of religion stifling science, I'm going to examine the phenomenon from a philosophical point of view and ask the question – is there any way that religion could aid the progress of science? If not, we are left with the same reality we've seen time and again already. If it cannot help, it can only hurt.
Religion is, by virtue of its foundation in faith, necessarily opposed to science. The degree of opposition is certainly variable, but we can say with certainty that if a set of beliefs is a religion (or is religious in nature – see my definition at the beginning!) then it is, by definition, opposed in some degree or another to science. Since we know that science is the only way to obtain knowledge, we can say that any person who believes any part of a religion which is opposed to science has less knowledge than he would if he were not religious. Put another way, adhering to any religion at all, by definition, increases scientific ignorance by some degree.
This, by itself, should dispel any myth that religion can aid science in any way, but we need to be thorough. Some will argue that religion has been at various times in history the sole repository of learning in the world. Early Muslims made huge leaps in astronomy and engineering, and it would be hard to deny the influence of the church in spreading advanced architectural designs and techniques across Europe. While these events in history cannot be reasonably denied, appealing to them misses the point entirely. Humans desire progress with or without religion. Though the church was indeed an effective vehicle for certain types of scientific progress, it was at the same time actively repressing other avenues of inquiry. At the same time that man was learning to cross oceans, he was also viciously repressing anyone who suggested that the earth was not the center of the universe. At the same time that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was “saving music” with his sacred madrigals, composers were meticulously avoiding the diminished fifth for fear of invoking the devil with music.
We should not mistake the existence of human progress concurrent with the influence of the church for facilitation by the church. We must, if we are honest, admit that the church permitted what it liked and forbade what it didn't like. What reason, save religion, can there possibly be for the fact that hundreds of years went by between the discovery and common acceptance of the idea that the earth is not the center of the universe?
It is readily apparent, if we bear in mind the fundamental opposition of religion to science, that in the realm of human morality, science, and egalitarianism, religion cannot add anything to human progress. We need only the scientific method to figure out, quite on our own, what it is to be moral, and why it is in our benefit to treat our fellow man as we wish to be treated. We can use science to learn that women and men, though not equal in all ways, are equally human, and that there is no scientific reason why women should be treated as second class citizens. We can learn that there is no genetic difference of any import between races, and that all races are equally human. We can learn that homosexuality is a normal part of the animal kingdom, and quite genetic. We can learn that schizophrenia is a mental condition, and treat it appropriately (as opposed to performing gruesome exorcism rituals). In short, there is nothing about improving the human condition that we can't figure out with only science.
To summarize, I hold the position that religion is inherently harmful to humanity for the following reasons:
Faith cannot add any content to human knowledge.
Faith creates impenetrable circular arguments which remain unquestioned, or presumed true, particularly with regard to the beneficial nature of religion.
Faith shifts the burden of proof to those who demand evidence that religion is good.
Religion purports to solve a problem that apparently doesn't exist – the “problem” of mortality and comfort.
What evidence there is suggests that religion either doesn't add anything beneficial to society or adds dysfunction.
Religion has no content to add to human morality
Religion provides justification for immorality that would not otherwise exist.
Religion adds unjustified and unnecessary division to humanity.
Religion can only hinder human progress.
I wish I could have come up with a tenth reason, but my love of irony has given way to practical considerations. In any case, I demand that those who would disagree with my conclusion present evidence to the contrary. It is not my responsibility to prove that the multitude of atrocities committed in the name of religion are not outweighed by the benefit religion gives to society. Religion has hoisted itself upon society without so much as a “by your leave,” and it's high time that it justified itself. If it really does benefit mankind, let's see the evidence. I refuse to take it on faith that religion is good. I see too much evidence to conclude that it is neutral. Even if it is neutral, one has to ask the question – why is it here if it adds nothing?
Finally, I would warn potential dissenters that I do not care about uninformed opinions. The bulk of my argument consists of one demand – proof. For millenia, religion has been assumed to be a positive force. It has never – not once – been forced to prove itself. I think it is high time. From where I sit, there is no reliable scientific evidence that religion is good, and a significant body of evidence, both logical and empirical, that it can only be harmful on the whole. Unless someone can prove me wrong on both counts, it seems like anyone who persists in the belief that religion is good for society is doing so on blind faith.
2Gregory Paul's study, in particular, has taken quite a beating in the public eye, but to my knowledge, there are no peer reviewed studies which contradict his data. Furthermore, his study does not state causation, though it has often been accused of doing so. While there is certainly some doubt about the precision of the data because of cultural differences in reporting and classification, we should be careful not to dismiss the study outright. With all the religious organizations in the world, it is very telling that there has not been a single study that outright contradicts Mr. Paul's.
3I should note that there are many studies which purport to prove that religion increases happiness, but lo and behold, they all rely on self reporting. In other words, personal anecdote. Everybody believes that religion makes people happier, but there are no studies of which I'm aware that demonstrate any kind of empirical connection. Oh... and before you object that happiness is immeasurable, stop. It's difficult to measure personal happiness, but far from impossible.
(4) Someone will object that I am doing the same thing by trying to force everyone to be on “the correct path of science.” The difference, of course, is that science is not a description of what is true. It is a method – the only possible method – for discovering what is true. There are only two choices – science or non-science, and I have already demonstrated that even this apparent “choice” is a misnomer. There is only good science and bad science. I cannot “force” anyone into the scientific method. I can only encourage consistency, for everyone uses science, whether they know it or not.