Sunday, March 25, 2012

Religion: more harm or more good for humanity?

One of my atheist Friends on Facebook likes to post questions and links that stir the pot between believers and non-believers (full disclosure: I don't actually know him in real life, but a mutual friend connected us, and I do enjoy reading his posts and the conversation they provoke).

Last night, he raised the question "Has religion done more harm or good for humanity?" I put some serious thought into this question a little over six years ago, and haven't really touched it since, but now seems like as good a time as any to do so. I have often argued the "more harm" side, but perhaps that's just because so many believers seem so reluctant to acknowledge the dark side of religion. But the more I think about the question as a whole, the more ambivalent I become.

Let's start with a back-of-an-envelope argument that religion has done more harm than good. The crusades, the inquisition, the persecution of the Jews, modern Islamic terrorism the world over, religious persecution of gays or those seeking (or providing) abortions, to say nothing of electing and re-electing George W. Bush: All of these things could reasonably be attributed to religion, along with all kinds of more personal atrocities.

Believers could point to such things as the end of slavery in America or the progress of civil rights as progress inspired by religion. Or, conversely, they could make the analogy that overtly-secular forces such as Soviet Communism are responsible for massacres as horrendous as anything religion has set up; atheists would respond that those atheists aren't representative of all atheists, to which believers might respond: "precisely, and the believers who committed the other acts you cite don't represent all believers, either."

A book--or, perhaps, an encyclopedia--could be written on this argument (from the "harm" side, at least one has been--God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens). But ultimately, that's simply a catalog of atrocities committed in the name of religion. It should give pause to those who consider religion to be an unalloyed good, but it doesn't answer the question.

What can religion take blame and credit for?When we talk about such things as the Crusades or the conflict in Palestine, or the conquest of the Americas (which were frequently seen in religious terms), it could reasonably be argued that such events were in reality political conflicts of one sort or another which were simply justified by religion and that, absent religion, they would still have been "justified" by other rationales (racial inferiority, simple hatred of "the other," whatever). Many of these things can also be seen as reactions to population pressure, to economic forces, or simple avarice on the part of leaders, with religion simply the icing on the cake that made it palatable to the people. This function of religion can't be neglected, because it's still a negative that religion can be used this way, but--to use a metaphor--religion might simply be chocolate icing which could have been replaced with vanilla or cream cheese or what have you (much as Maxism or racism was used elsewhere and otherwhen).

By the same token, however, the positives of religion could reasonably be taken away from religion. If it helped end slavery in the US, we can also remember that religion helped justify that same slavery in the south and historically. And we could argue that secular forces (industrialization making slavery less necessary, a higher standard of living raising the consciousness of the suffering of others) also played into such movements and that secular forces might have done the job just as well (for instance, if the Enlightenment project hadn't been set back by religious forces).

Thus it seems like the arguments that help absolve religion of blame can also be turned around to absolve it of virtue. Call it a push?

When it comes down to it, the two positives that religion might legitimately be said to offer are hope and morality.

The Case for Hope
Religion offers at least two kinds of hope. One, of course, is the hope of life after death (which helps enforce morality, whether that morality includes being nice to children and puppies or slaughtering infidels) which for some people seems to make life seem more meaningful, even though its effect is actually frequently to de-value this life. More, though, it offers hope that life is inherently meaningful, that there's a reason to go on living. Likewise, though, the belief in religion allows people to believe in ultimate justice of all sorts: that bad people are punished and that our good actions will be justified. It gives us hope that our small contributions to larger movements will be successful: either God will help us or God will ensure that our contribution to a cause is justified in the long run. Consider, for example, people struggling against oppression. An unbeliever might not participate in resistance because of a belief that they can't make a difference, whereas a believer might find courage in their belief that God will support them or, at the very least, make their suffering and/or death not be in vain.

Now, of course, there are some arguments against these points. Religion isn't needed to make life meaningful. Or, on the other side. people may rely on God to solve their problems rather than acting themselves. And, likewise, a person following secular beliefs could realize that seemingly impossible things have been accomplished by collective action, justifying their risk to contribute. Nonetheless, believing that God will help a just cause is far different than believing that people could succeed against the odds. Flip that around though: history shows us that people also can die based on religious beliefs in the service of losing causes and unjust causes, and in these cases religion gave them the strength and confidence to do things which might have been better off not being done!

How about morality?
In the first place, it's certainly possible to be moral without believing in religion--or to be immoral while believing in religion. Perhaps religion does do a better job of enforcing moral codes--the beliefs so engendered tend to stick better and be more deeply held.

None of this is particularly surprising, when we considered how religion developed alongside more complicated social structures. The rise of "civilization" over tribal living is deeply tied to the rise of religion. In tribal life (small communities with close ties among its members), morality is relatively easy to enforce. Shaming is very effective in such groups and, if worse comes to worse, the community at large can physically force adherence to rules.

In larger social grouping such as cities and states, this sort of community no longer exists. People no longer necessarily know their neighbors and they come in contact with all sorts of people. In this case, the enforcers of morality become two-fold: laws which are backed up by the state and morals which are backed up by religion. Laws suffer from the limitation that no government can effectively police all of its citizens; plus, the state is essentially reactive in enforcing its laws, and imperfect at that. Thus, the importance of religion. If people believe that something is wrong, if they believe that breaking a rule will not just be punished by their community or state if they're caught but instead will be punished by their god(s), they are somewhat more likely (though not assured) of following these rules.

Now, this is all historical, of course. I've already asserted that atheists can be moral, and I have no reason to go back on that statement. But it's equally clear that they may very well not be. The common "If there's no God, then anything is allowed" is too easy to accept by those who have not particularly thought on the matter. Here's where our beliefs about human beings will ultimately come into play. A pessimistic view would suggest that, in fact, the majority of human beings (or, at least, a significant number) can't (or won't) be moral without the fear of God hanging over them. Thus, for society, religion might be a good thing. This isn't to say that it is good for all members of society, just for society as a whole, to keep people good and to unify a large, diverse population. A more optimistic view would hold that the reason that it seems like people can't all (or mostly) be good have to do with their education and beliefs, and so can be corrected. This is a pretty big question--bigger, in fact, than I want to try to dig into today, even though it's essential to the question. If people are basically bad, then religion (or something like it?) might be necessary for social order; if people are basically good, then religion might not be necessary and therefore not necessarily good.

Less good or bad than inevitable?
In response to a similar post some six years ago, my friend Matt wrote:
By asking whether religion is good or bad for humanity, you're essentially asking whether humanity is good or bad for humanity. (My answer: on the whole, it's a slight negative.)
I'm not saying religion is genetically hard-wired into us, but I am saying that every single conceivable consequence of it, from holy wars to those little tiny envelopes they make for Sunday School donations, would come about in roughly the same way for other reasons in its absence. It's here, it may or may not be queer, get used to it. Human beings have a limited number of responses to stimuli, and they're always going off, all over the place, all the time. We could as easily get rid of (or more deeply ingrain) legal codes, fungi, left-handedness, or ennui.

Perhaps that's true--in a way, it anticipated Alain de Botton's Atheism 2.0, which has the basic premise that, because of human nature being what it is, atheists can learn a thing or two from religion, which after co-evolved socially with human beings. We might be able to imagine other ways of dealing with the problems that religion deals with, but in a way it's difficult to see what the options were because, in a sense, the weight of history is saying that they weren't--for one reason or another--viable options, which is particularly true because "organized religion" wasn't chosen by King So-and-So in 10,000 BCE or whatever: it was "chosen" on a cultural level over and over.

That said, it's still an open question whether organized religion should continue to be an important force in the world, and it may very well be a question which our culture is answering in the negative--look at all of the "spiritual-but-not-religious" folks out there. The relevance of the question, really, is whether the good of religion outweighs to evil of religion such that it should continue in the present and future. Or could other belief systems do as well or better? 
 Religions don't kill people; people (with religions) kill people
A virtual friend who's long since disappeared made an analogy that clarified my thinking a bit, likening religion to a loaded gun, she suggested that it's not religion which is at fault so much as it is what people do with religion that raises difficulties. To her conclusion that "religion is unquestionably good, in the hands of GOOD PEOPLE," I feel compelled to add that religion is unquestionably bad in the hands of bad people. That's the thing: religion is incredibly powerful. Likening religion to a gun may have been an understatement--try a missile or even a nuke!

What gives religion so much power is its absolute nature: when a priest or pope or imam says "this is the right thing to do," it is theoretically God saying that it's the right thing to do. Rules are backed up with infinite punishment or infinite reward, and thus can trump everything, including--or especially!--common sense. Thus do people fly airplanes into buildings or strap bombs on as they head to the subway; thus do people Crusade to take back "holy lands" or torture those who disagree and get away with it. They get away with it because they're seen as fundamentally and absolutely right. This is religion's great power for good and evil. Not its only power, but probably its greatest.

That doesn't happen just in religion, of course, but it seems to me that religion is a more powerful force as a justifying motivation. In Soviet Russia or Communist China, there was significant resistance--overt, covert, and silent--because the secular regimes couldn't justify their abuses beyond the naked use of power to do what they wanted. Religion seems to be a more believable uniting fiction, in the sense that it more easily turns off critical thinking and resistance.

De-fanging religion?
In more recent times, we have seen religions which acknowledge human fallibility and limitations, religions based on democratic and individualistic premises, even--liberal Christianity and the UUs come to mind. The effect of this is to curb religion's capability for evil without much injuring its capacity for doing good. Believers who can accept that--whoops!--their beliefs might be wrong, that a book might not be the ultimate Truth, that they might be misinterpreting "God's will"--such people aren't too likely to make the grand acts that harm others and can't be taken back. They're more likely to act with more consideration and tolerance. And that's all to the good.

There's another characteristic of religion (if we're defining religion as "organized religion") that's worth looking at for its goodness and badness--also, for that matter, as an additional source of that power of religion that I referred to earlier. I'm speaking now of hierarchical organization. Throughout most of history it's been a feature of religion and to some extent continues in anything that can be called organized religion. Churches work primarily in top-down ways. The Pope says "this is so" and his bishops make sure that everyone on down the line through priests and the Catholic laity get in line, at least to the extent that they can and are willing to do so. Even churches without the rigid hierarchy still have echoes of it if they have a minister/pastor/priest, because almost by default they become an authority figure.

This hierarchical structure, of course, isn't limited to churches. It is, however, both pernicious and powerful wherever it exists. Just as nations wiped out tribes with the power of their more rigid organization, Christianity wiped out less structured pagans too, often in conjunction with the hierarchical power of the State. I think it's a fair characterization to say that non-hierarchical organizations are better for the individuals in them, while hierarchical organizations are better for the stability of the organization itself and the power structures that exist within them--that is, it helps the people on top and it perpetuates itself.

That said, some churches in the modern day have moved closer to a balance between the organization and the autonomy of the individual. This started, of course, with protestantism itself back in the 16th century, as it brought "the word of God" into the vernacular and gradually lessened the importance of a mediator between God and the individual. The church in which I grew up, the United Church of Christ (UCC) is something of the par excellence as far as this goes, and outside Christianity, the Unitarian Universalists similarly embrace democratic governance. Both are governed at their highest levels not by a leader but by democratic gathering of representatives from congregations. It acts democratically to express the majority will, but even this expression is not binding in terms of belief or behavior (though, of course, certain things like spending money are binding by the fact of being actions taken rather than things said)--local churches have complete control over their own finances, hiring and firing, and even theological and political stands.

Contrast this to, say, Catholicism. Or fundamentalist religions. These are far more dangerous than something so liberal (or Liberal, actually) as the UCC. While a less-hierarchical denomination like the UCC may have less power to do evil, it arguably also has less strength to do good, but that's okay because it actually still has a lot of strength which is mostly only good for good.
Hasty, tacked-on conclusion

Despite what optimistic atheists have thought at various times in history, it seems that religion isn't going away any time soon (and, in fairness, maybe there are good reasons for that, which we atheists ignore at our own peril). This being the case, it's less important to wonder whether "religion has done more harm than good" than to ask "what aspects of religion are most dangerous and which ones are most beneficial? The fact is that religion is not one stable, monolithic thing throughout eternity or even throughout the lifespan of one religion, and that being the case, it might be worthwhile to think about the question in this dissecting way. And when I say "useful," I mean for both believer and non-believer: useful for the former to choose her religion thoughtfully and--in this democratic age--to influence it; useful for the non-believer to know which religions really are enemies to you and which ones are, in many ways, allies, not to mention learning a bit more about how we work and what we need.


  1. The divine religion quietly offers the experience of oneness, divine love and peace amongst men. The divine religion has nothing to do with hatred, supremacy or theological dispute. It only seeks to bring the divine consciousness into man. - a consciousness that can only uplift the world. Thanks a lot.

  2. It's certainly an interesting question, but to me the more important question is not what harm or good religion does, but whether or not any of it is true. I believe in Christ because I think the creed is a good summary of the truth, not because I derive benefits from belief. Likewise, if I ever become persuaded that it's not the truth, I will stop believing -- people can persuade themselves that things are true, but they can't really believe what they KNOW is a lie -- they can only persuade themselves it's not a lie.

  3. Anthony and I just recently had a conversation about this very topic. I think religion causes problems when it proclaims to be the right and only way and knows what is best for you. I hate it when religious people claim to know the will of God. Our presiding bishop recently made a statement to the effect the Jesus was her personal path but that there are also other paths. She took some criticism for this but it makes me proud to have her as presiding bishop.
    Also recently I read Pillars of the Earth and it's sequel and those made me think alot about the good and bad that have been done through history in the name of religion.
    In response to Prochaskas above, I do not think the important question is whether any of it's true. In fact that is very unimportant to me. The truths that are contained in the stories are much more important than whether the actual events happened- for my faith.

  4. Wow, John. You have a lot of thought here on one of my very favorite topics. As you have observed, religion has done tremendous harm and tremendous good--both of which would most likely have been done using other justifications absent religion. As a UU, I see the tremendous good religion could do if it were not so often about defending a particular creed as the *right* creed and focused more on living together in good-faith covenant. If religion were about coming together and joining forces to achieve our highest aspirations for justice, equity, and compassion and being together in community during major life milestones (birth, marriage, death, etc.) it would be all it could be. Unfortunately, some people can be very good at mixing other people's highest aspirations with their own desire for power or superiority, and then you get the messes we've made with faith over the years. Great post!