Is moderate religion harmful?

Now, 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. […]

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.)

Alternet: The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful

(via Atom Jack)

I question the statement that “moderate religion is in the minority,” otherwise I mostly agree. This echoes
what Sam Harris wrote in the introduction to Letter to a Christian Nation:

Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the “Christian” I address. They should, however, recognize one hundred and fifty million of their neighbors. I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do. It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths. Although liberals and moderates do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew. Even the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world. In Letter to a Christian Nation, however, I engage Christianity at its most divisive, injurious, and retrograde. In this, liberals, moderates, and nonbelievers can recognize a common cause.

However, I have of late been taking less of a hard line with religion, thanks in part to the arguments of Scott Atran. I still believe that religion, on the whole, is harmful (that is, although most individual religious persons are mostly harmless, the collective tacit endorsement of grossly evil behavior is harmful). But I’m far less convinced that, as Trevor Blake has put it, religion can be withered by the “twin suns of reason and scorn.” To quote Atran:

“How do we as scientists advance reason in an inherently unreasonable world?” This is a very difficult issue and one that cannot be seriously addressed by simply trying to muscle science and reason into everyday or momentous human affairs. I am privy to hostage negotiations, and be assured that simply telling hostage takers their beliefs are bullshit will get you the opposite of what you want, like the hostage’s head delivered on a platter. Of course, that’s an extreme case; but reason by backward induction towards the less extreme cases in the actual political and social conditions of our present world and you will find that the tactics proposed at the conference for an unlikely strategic shift in humankind’s thinking will most probably blowback and backfire.

Atran has taken up another tactic. I can’t speculate as to its effectiveness, but he does demonstrate that there may be other ways forward.


  1. Part of the problem here is one of taxonomy. Where does religion stop and start? Does “religion” include gnosis? Is all mysticism religion? Is the core of the Tao Te Ching religion? How about Theravada Buddhism? Just askin’

  2. I advocate the withering away of religion. Whether or not this can be done is a separate issue. I’m not sure I’ve said it can happen, but I want it to happen. All religions so far have died out. Overt open human slavery has all but died out (compared to the past few hundred thousand years). One can hope.

    Being wrong isn’t the problem in itself. Not learning from the experience of being wrong, that’s the problem. Religion doesn’t learn, it’s the main ‘do not learn’ social form. True believers in any cause that refuse to learn, or never put themselves in a risk-taking position to learn their errors, tend to be the ones who mess things up for everyone. That’s why as atheism has become more of an important issue for me I’ve made a point of hanging out with more non-atheists… they’re going to tell me where I’m mistaken, not fellow atheists.

    Moderate religion makes non-moderate religion possible. If there were only a few dozen non-moderate religionists then they’d be easy to contain. It’s the buffer of the moderate that makes them successful, in the way it takes a nation to put a tyrant into power and keep him there.

  3. I’m not a believer in any religion, but I don’t buy any of this. The piece ends by saying that we’d be better off without religion – a complete article of faith if you ask me. Is there any evidence to back this up? Any statistics to show that largely secularised countries enjoy lower crime rates than religious ones, or that purely secular institutions are less prone to corruption than religious one? (Ireland, where I’m from, has become massively secularised in the last few decades; this is a good thing, but its murder rate has also soared in those decades.) Any historian who can really show that the degree of secularisation that has occured in the West has created any kind of ethical improvement in the species? I think Southpark got this one right – eradicate religion, and people will just be killing themselves at the same rate, for different reasons.

  4. Trevor – Revised statement: I’m not sure the application of reason and scorn is a useful means for reducing the negative impact of religion.

    Tristan – “Does religion do more harm than good?” and “Would we be better off without religion?” are actually two different questions, though it may not seem so at first.

    “Where is the data?” is an entirely reasonable question.

    I know of no source of statistics on religiously motivated crimes, but you can find a large collection of individual news clips at Trevor’s blog: He’s been at it for years. Without religion, we would not have any of these crimes. The individuals responsible may have committed other crimes instead, or perhaps something else bad would have happened. But at the very least, this catalog of crimes and atrocities would not have occurred. Likewise, in a world without racism, there would be no racially motivated crimes but perhaps the individuals who commit them would commit other crimes.

    As for statistics regarding actual secularization and crime- I don’t have anything handy but it would be very interesting to compile some data. I can only speak in large generalities.

    Religion has been on the decline in Western Europe (, and also has generally low violent crime rates. There are quite a lot of other mitigating factors there, though – health care, low poverty rates, fewer guns, etc. And it could be some of these other factors that actually cause an increase in secularization.

    Meanwhile, the United States, often cited as one of the most religious countries in the world, saw a increase in those claiming no religion between 1990 and 2009, as well as a decrease in violent crime.

    At an even larger scale – at least one study has concluded that the world has become an overall less violent place:

    But there is considerable controversy over whether secularization is actually increasing globally – There is even some question about the extent of secularization in Western Europe.

    It’s rather difficult to present hard data on atheism since really, none-to-few exist to study. I would argue that the various Communist states are/were non-atheist not because I think Marxism is a religion, but because religion is/was still a part of the private lives of the citizenry of these nations.

    Atran has claimed that “No society in recorded history has ever survived more than about three generations without a religious foundation” I don’t know if that is true.

  5. Here are some resources on the harm done by religion that (1) emphasize statistical data (2) give their sources for confirmation / disconfirmation…

    Here’s another perspective…

    … with an increase in education comes a decrease in religious adherence. Atheists are under-represented in prisons. Correlations are not causalities, but the trend is worth noting.

    Thanks to Klint for several links to where I do indeed have thousands of links on the harm done by religion.

  6. Rich people are also under-represented in prisons.

    Atlan writes:

    “We heard from Sam Harris that Muslims represent less than 10% of the population in Western European countries such as France, but over 50% of the prison population. The obvious inference expected from the audience is that Islam encourages criminal behavior. But what is not reported is that Muslims in the U.S. are as underrepresented in prison populations, as are U.S. Jews, and that the predictive factors for Muslims entering European prisons are almost exactly the same for African Americans entering U.S. prisons, namely lack of: employment, schooling, political representation, and so forth. Moreover, religious education is a negative predictor of Muslims entering European prisons.”

  7. If by religion you mean “I must follow what it says in this book” or “I must follow what that guy in the pulpit says”, then I tend to agree. Because blindly following what someone else says is always a bad idea, even if you only do it moderately.

    But following an irrational path that you find inside you, tempered by rational consideration, is often constructive … or at least, entertaining. 😉

    I suppose this is what the first commenter calls “Gnosis”? But it can be religion, too, for some people.

  8. Thanks for the lengthy and very thought provoking responses. I will look over the various links more thoroughly in time. The economic complications that Klint mentions are a large part of what makes me sceptical of this kind of thinking. If most manifestations of extreme religious bigotry and crime are inseparable from circumstances of extreme poverty, then to what extent do these problems indicate wider issues of wealth distribution and social justice, of which the religious issues are a manifestation rather than a root cause? If some case can be made in this regard, then we are dealing with issues of material, this-worldly greed, which cannot really be squared with Trevor’s argument that the primary problem lies with a belief in the primacy of supernatural entities and an invisible afterlife. There is, however, certainly a lot of strong points to consider here. I remain unconvinced for the moment that a belief in unverifible spiritual realities has any inherant connection to violence or bigotry, or even to extreme forms of irrationalism per se. ( I know of many religious individuals and thinkers who are rigidly rational in how they conceive of this world, and differ with scientists in terms of primary causes.) By the same token, I’m not convinced that the empirical scientific outlook leads necessarily to socially or ethically provident outcomes. Ideas from both spectrums become maleable and unpredictable when they come in contact with different individuals and societies.

  9. Klint: “Rich people are also under-represented in prisons.” There is indeed a correlation between wealth and atheism and not being in prison. The more one is able and willing to learn from and not repeat mistakes, the more these three seem to occur.

    Tristan: “Trevor’s argument that the primary problem lies with a belief in the primacy of supernatural entities and an invisible afterlife.” As I said, being wrong isn’t the problem in itself. Not learning from the experience of being wrong, that’s the problem.

  10. Scientists can be rather remarkably gnostic about the universe. A lot of them think they know things when really, they’re just theories. They can mob people who don’t believe with them. Case in point, cold fusion scientists are ridiculed. Many of them have lost their status and jobs because of it.

    One of the main scientists that participated in trying to prove relativity, the inventor of the atomic clock, Louis Essen:

    So, while I accept that religion can be harmful, so are the scientists. Maybe some scientists will say that it’s not the science, but the scientist that is harmful. Or, maybe we can just chalk it all up to humanity rather than this or that theology or community.

  11. “[Moderate religion] encourages people to believe in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.”

    I know you didn’t write the above but I chose to respond to this because it seems to serve as a premise for the rest of this post.

    This is only true of superstitious religion, which I grant includes a lot, especially in the West. Christianity, Islam, Judaism all definitely qualify. There are many religions, even a couple so-called “world religions” which do not encourage such beliefs though. These include the mainline of Confucianism, Buddhism, and of course Thelema. The latter of these explicitly makes an enemy of superstition.

    While secular humanism does away with much superstition, it nevertheless suffers equally, perhaps even more insidiously, from the other problem of many religions: slave morality. Secular humanism in fact inherits a lot of its moral teachings from Christian philosophy, and codifies, a priori, certain kinds of behavior as good and others as evil.

    The bottom line is that people have instinctive religious modes of expression. Doing away with superstition is something I can definitely get behind. But continuing to entrench the codes of slave morality, and throwing the baby out with the bathwater by not providing some venue of religious modes of expression, is no solution to the problem.

    Attempts to cause religion to wither will be no more successful than attempts to cause the withering of sexual activity in young adults.

    People are still having sex, and rational, scientific people are still engaging in religion. And they always will.

    What we need is to promote non-superstitious, even scientific religious modes of expression. Religious exaltation of nothing but the facts of nature. Adoring the sun, the earth, and the mystery of genetic evolution as our tritity of creation. Discovering as completely as possible the nature and powers of our own being, and our relationship to the cosmos. Learning from observation what it means to be human and who we are as individuals. That’s not superstitious, but it is religious.

    I preside in religious rituals all the time as you know, and none of them assert any superstitious belief. Not one.

    So, on the whole I think that the perspectives expressed here and there about “religion” are painting with a very wide stroke. Too wide. And when the “twin suns of reason and scorn” are turned on, it can result in stereotyping (and often a lot more scorn than reason).

    Part of the reason for the broad stroke is that many people engaging in these discussions, while having set down superstition, are still engaging in a priori moralizing, and have simply changed the definition of what is determined in advance to be “good” and “evil.” The bit I quoted at the top of this comment suggests that religion is categorically evil. You can use reason to defend this, and when that fails resort to scorn, but reason and scorn are not new tools. They were practically invented by religion as a means to defend their broad strokes and shield their cognitive dissonance. It is the morality which shuts off thought.

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