In the spirit of noding one's homework, below is an essay written for one of my undergraduate philosophy seminars regarding the ills of religion. It should be made clear that I do not believe all religions (or all believers) are bad or evil or anything like that; rather, I simply believe the negative aspects of religion far outweigh any positive side-effects.
Specifically, the main point of this essay is to refute the common belief that somehow the world is "better off with religion, whether it's true or not." In my opinion, this is not the case...in fact, it’s nowhere near the case.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this essay, "religion" is defined as a set of beliefs (or an organized structure/system of said beliefs) that compels one to make certain moral choices based on faith or the perceived authority of a church or religious leader. Obviously, this definition falls short of defining many minority religions and/or spiritual viewpoints; the intent here is to target the religious machinery itself, that is, groups of individual religious persons such as the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and other fundamentalists/zealots who act in such a way as to manufacture (what I argue to be) a false moral code. An attack against tolerant, minority religio-spiritual viewpoints is neither intended nor implied.
As is mentioned in the first footnote, the essay specifically focuses on the Judeo-Christian faith, as that is the predominant world view to date. (Yet most of the arguments could be easily adapted for other religions, such as Islam.) The paper is reproduced below, complete with its original title, a quote by philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Religion: The Dragon that Guards the Door
Despite whether it is based in fact, many people today believe that religion does more good than harm. Even if religion is a false doctrine of superstition and myth, it is often argued that its benefits far outweigh its detriments. According to these arguments, the good things done in the name of religion are more than enough to make up for the slight harm caused by mass ignorance of the truth. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it fails to factor in the bad things done in the name of religion. The wars, murders, and other atrocities perpetuated by religious belief and its unwavering defense against social and scientific progress combine to create quite a formidable argument against the notion that supernatural belief is necessary or even beneficial to human society.1
Mid-twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed there were two major arguments against religion, the intellectual and the moral.2 Disputing the belief that religion can accomplish good things while being untrue, he claimed that one's opinion of whether an outcome is "good" or "bad" can have much to do with whether one is religious in the first place:
[T]here is a certain tendency in our practical age to consider that it does not much matter whether religious teaching is true or not, since the important question is whether it is useful. One question, however, cannot be decided without the other. If we believe the Christian religion, our notions of what is good will be different from what they will be if we do not believe it. Therefore, to Christians, the effects of Christianity may seem good, while to unbelievers they may seem bad.3
For example, if conservative Christians (with Leviticus 18:224 in mind) lobby their state legislature effectively and are able to outlaw same-sex marriage, fundamentalists would probably rejoice at this obviously "positive" effect of religion. However, unbelievers (most especially gay and lesbian unbelievers) would probably find this horrible violation of personal rights to be a "negative" effect. And what about when different religions, or different sects, disagree? Of this, writer Barbara Ehrenreich said in her 1985 Vogue article, "One Nation, Divided, Under God:"
When one side says that God commands us to build more nuclear weapons, and the other side says God commands us to tear them down, then there is really nothing that the two sides can say to each other. As the Fundamentalist bumper-sticker says, "The Bible said it, I believe it, and that's all there is to it."5
The way in which one judges the outcome of an act done in the name of religion is very much relative to the person's religious beliefs at the time.
Russell's second objection to religion, the moral argument, attacks supernatural belief because of its tendency to enforce the status quo and slow cultural and social progress. According to Russell, religion dates "from a time when [people] were more cruel than they are and therefore [tends] to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow."6 Eva Ingersoll, in the appendix of The Woman's Bible Part II, reiterated Russell's argument that adherence to ancient religious laws only serves to shackle society to the morality of the time when the laws were written:
I regard the Bible as I do the other so-called sacred books of the world. They were all produced in savage times, and, of course, contain many things that shock our sense of justice. In the days of darkness women were regarded and treated as slaves. They were allowed no voice in public affairs. Neither man nor woman was civilized... It gives me pleasure to know that women are beginning to think and are becoming dissatisfied with the religion of barbarians.7
Written in a time when women were considered inferior to men, the Bible is riddled with sexist rules demanding their subjugation.8 As society progresses, however, believers are forced to choose between society's evolving morality and the ancient morality ordained by the tenents of their religion. Since hellfire and damnation are the results of disobeying God's laws, it is no surprise that many choose to cling to ancient bigotry instead of progressing beyond intolerance with the rest of society.
Social and scientific progress are often at odds with religion. As a result, the struggle for minority rights has often been a struggle against religious authority. Anne Nicol Gaylor, in an article for Free Inquiry, discussed Wisconsin's fight for legalized contraception, which was mostly a fight against Christian fundamentalists:
As late as 1974 it was illegal in Wisconsin for any unmarried person to purchase contraceptives, and our laws were hostile to birth control even for someone properly married.... [L]ong lines of priests, nuns, and fundamentalists...came to the state capital to testify against contraception and abortion, even as Wisconsin women were having babies every year until they died from it, even as the world began to shudder from overpopulation.9
Contraception was not the first scientific breakthrough to be denounced by the Church. The heliocentric theory, theory of evolution, smallpox vaccine, and various methods of assisted reproduction—to name a few—are all examples of issues that have provoked resistance from believers throughout history.
Sex is another issue that has been attacked by religion. By insisting that sex is something dirty and evil, religion has caused millions of people to feel guilty about an act in which they are naturally compelled to take part. By suggesting that sex is wrong, religionists are often able to convince others that sex education is wrong, also—for the knowledge one gains can only lead to mischief. While sex education might be the only weapon society has against sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS and syphilis, there is also an argument by many believers that such diseases are really "punishments from God" for sinful acts. Explains Russell:
Take, for example, the question of the prevention of syphilis. It is known that, by precautions taken in advance, the danger of contracting this disease can be made negligible. Christians, however, object to the dissemination of knowledge of this fact, since they hold it good that sinners should be punished. They hold this so good that they are even willing that punishment should extend to the wives and children of sinners. There are in the world at the present moment many thousands of children suffering from congenital syphilis who would never have been born but for the desire of Christians to see sinners punished. I cannot understand how doctrines leading to this fiendish cruelty can be considered to have good effects upon morals.10
The concept of sex being "sinful" is found throughout the Bible. Whether one is talking about the fate of Onan, the man who spilt his seed and was killed by God for his transgression11 (leading the Church to condemn masturbation), or the elegant way in which Psalms 51:512 argues all humans are born in sin, one thing is clear: sex is shameful and wrong.
For a more concrete example of why religion does more harm than good, consider that religious belief has served as a catalyst for too many wars and murders to count. Even if a certain mythology seems pacifistic, almost any belief in the supernatural can be turned into a call for blood. Says Gustave Le Bon, author of The Psychology of the Great War:
[W]hen Germany adopted the Christian God, so mild and merciful to the lowly of the earth, He took the form of a savage deity, who despised the weak and accorded his protection to the strong alone. A transformation of this sort cannot surprise the philosopher, for [he or she] knows that gods do not change the souls of nations, but that, on the contrary, they are made in the image of the peoples who adopt them.13
The Crusades are an obvious example of religious wars. Authorized by the Pope, the Crusades have been described by historians as "an attempt to recover Christian territories lost to the infidels."14 Between 1095 and 1274, eight major and several minor crusades were led to recapture land of religious significance from the aforementioned infidels—attacking the Moors in Spain, pagans in northeastern Europe, "heretics" in France and Germany, other Christians in the West, and Muslims in Egypt, North Africa, and the Holy Land.15 In the First Crusade, Pope Urban II threatened to excommunicate any soldier who left the ranks of the army before it reached Jerusalem, forcing the men to choose between offending God and slaughtering the innocent.16 When the crusaders won, it was because God was on their side; but, when they lost, it was because they were sinners, explains one commentator:
The crusades were holy wars and as such were believed to be sanctioned and even commanded by God. It was thought that he intervened in and decided the outcome of battles and in this context the church found it difficult to explain a defeat... Apologists found that the most satisfactory way out of this dilemma was to attribute unworthiness even when acting as God's instrument; in other words to place the blame upon the crusaders themselves. According to the popes, preachers, poets, and chroniclers, the Lord was angered by men's sins...and as a punishment allowed them to be defeated by the Muslims.17
Commanded by God to kill others, and punished by God with defeat—the crusaders were fighting a war they could not win, a paradox their religious beliefs gave them no means to escape.
The Crusades were by far not the only religious wars in history. In 1562, the first of many civil wars between Catholics and Calvinists broke out in Europe.18 Several bloody battles between Huguenots and Catholics erupted in 1567 and, following the failed assassination of Huguenot leader Coligny, the horrible St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre resulted in the deaths of thousands of Huguenots who were "rebellious to God and to Charles IX."19 Meanwhile, Muslims were fighting for God in the Jihad, which both served to "make the world safe for Islam" as well as propagate the religion to other areas.20 Mark Twain illustrated the ridiculousness of God-assisted war in his narrative poem "The War Prayer:"
[H]elp us to turn them out roofless to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love...Amen. 21
All over the world and throughout history, millions have been killed in the name of God. In each of these conflicts, both sides thought that they had "God on their side," yet all they had was senseless violence in the name of an invisible, silent, mythological being.
Religion has caused too many tragedies to ever be outweighed by its negligible (and arguable) benefits. Who could deny that atrocities such as the Crusades, Inquisition, and Salem Witch Trials were the result of belief in the supernatural? How can disasters such as Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven's Gate be ignored in light of the other "nicer" things caused by religion? It seems odd that anyone would argue for continued adherence to these ancient mythologies when they are viewed in the context of their effects.
But, one might argue, hasn't anything good come as a result of religion? It depends on how one looks at it. Russell argued that religion had made two positive contributions to society, namely that it "helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they were able to predict them."22 However, Russell is perhaps being a bit stingy. It is impossible to ignore the many good things attributed to and done in the name of religion.
The religious apologist would most certainly point to the famine relief work of the World Council of Churches as an example of "good work done in the name of religion." Habitat for Humanity, the Christian organization that provides low-cost homes for the homeless, would also be an example of this. But even if something is done in the name of religion, it does not necessarily follow that the work being done is a result of religion. Assuming that the elimination of religion would not cause the elimination of poverty, it is highly plausible that organizations such as the World Council and Habitat for Humanity would still have come about even if Christianity had never existed. After all, there are many secular poverty relief organizations (such as Oxfam) at work today, so the drive to feed and shelter the poor is not necessarily a drive to do "God's work."
And after a quick look in the Bible, one wonders whether these organizations are actually doing God's work at all. Neither Yaweh nor Jesus ever say much about the elimination of poverty. While Jesus told his followers, "Sell your possessions and give in charity,"23 the context of the passage suggests they should give to the needy because it is more difficult for the wealthy to go to heaven than the poor—not because it is good to help those in need.24 Jesus would later go on to remind his disciples, "You have the poor among you always."25
It is sometimes argued that religion (Christianity in particular) has helped to elevate the status of women. Russell denies this, saying "this is one of the grossest perversions of history that it is possible to make."26 In looking at the struggle for women's rights in America, it is notable that the leaders of the movement were almost all agnostics or atheists. Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony—the forerunners in the movement for birth control and women's suffrage—were all at odds with religion.27 Having fought for years against patriarchal religious authority, Sanger's women's rights newsletter proudly displayed the motto "No Gods—No Masters"28 while Stanton's essays "The Christian Church and Women" and "The Degraded Status of Women in the Bible" were far from appreciative of the Church's "help." And while Anthony closeted most of her beliefs regarding religion for political reasons, she still privately told Stanton with regard to the blasphemous Woman's Bible, "But while I do not consider it my duty to tear to tatters the lingering skeletons of the old superstitions and bigotries, yet I rejoice to see them crumbling on every side."29 The struggle for women's rights came about through the work of strong, courageous, determined women—not through a belief in the supernatural.
Another argument for the persistence of religion is that it provides comfort for the natural fear of death most humans share. This argument apparently assumes that people would rather not know the truth if the truth is unpleasant (i.e. if there is no afterlife). I find this hard to believe. Suppose that a person, having visited his or her family doctor for a routine physical, is discovered to have a rare disorder. This disorder is expected to bring about the person's death quickly and painlessly in a matter of months. Now suppose you are that person. Would you want the doctor to tell you that you were going to die, so that you could come to grips with your mortality and tie up all of your "loose ends" in life (such as making a will and doing some of the things you've always meant to do before you die), or would you prefer that the doctor to keep your imminent death a secret, so you could live out your days in ignorant bliss? The same goes for the afterlife. If there is no life after death, would you rather go through life with this knowledge (and with a carpe diem attitude) or would you prefer to live each day thinking that paradise is just around the corner, dying without ever having lived?
Some say that religion provides a kind of moral guide to society. Without religion, they argue, there would be no basis for morality. These same people often point to the Ten Commandments, which they claim to be the basis for all modern law. The Code of Hammurabi, however, contains much of the "what is right and what is wrong" rhetoric that we include in our modern laws—yet it predates the Bible and was written by a human being (presumably without divine help, even though Hammurabi claimed to have god-given authority).30 As for the teachings of Jesus, even C. S. Lewis, famous Christian apologist, argued against accepting him only as a "great teacher" but not a god:
That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be a lunatic.... Either this man was, and is the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool...or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.31
Indeed, if one does not accept the divinity of Jesus, it becomes very difficult to follow his doctrines, which included an acceptance of slavery and authority (no matter how oppressive).32 If Christianity is true, then Jesus' teachings are a perfect guide to follow for one to enter the gates of Heaven—but if it is false, then they do nothing to make us better human beings.
Although many people derive comfort from religion and others do good things in the name of God, these acts pale in comparison to the atrocities committed to please an invisible, supernatural deity. Most (if not all) of the good things done in the name of religion could be and have been done in the name of helping one's fellow human beings. Religion enforces the status quo and fights against scientific and social evolution. It has been responsible for wars, mass suicides, and bigotry, and it is used as an excuse to do horrible things with an air of righteousness. In exchange for providing negligible benefits to society, religion holds humanity back from accomplishing its potential, fettering it with superstition and myth. As Bertrand Russell said, "It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion."33
1. For purposes of simplicity and familiarity, this essay will primarily focus on the Judeo-Christian faith, although many (if not all) of the arguments discussed herein can be easily adapted for other religions, as well (with Islam as one of the most notable examples).
2. Bertrand Russell, "Has Religion made Useful Contributions to Civilization?" Why I Am Not a Christian, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957) 30.
3. Russell 30.
4. "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." (All Biblical references are King James Version.)
5. Qtd. in Julie S. Bach and Thomas Modl, Religion in America (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989) 85.
6. Russell 30.
7. Qtd. in Annie Laurie Gaylor, Women without Superstition: "No Gods, No Masters" (Madison: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997) xii.
8. See Leviticus 19:20-22, Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and 25:11-12, I Corinthians 11:3-15 and 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-23, Colossians 3:18, and I Timothy 2:9-14.
9. Qtd. in Julie S. Bach and Thomas Modl, 81.
10. Russell 27-28.
11. Genesis 38:1-10.
12. "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me."
13. Gustave Le Bon, The Psychology of the Great War (New York: Macmillan, 1916) 116.
14. J. S. C. and L. Riley-Smith, qtd. in Elizabeth Siberry, Criticism of Crusading (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1985) vii.
15. Ibid 156.
16. Ibid 47.
17. Ibid 69.
18. Franklin Palm, Calvinism and the Religious Wars (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1932) 46.
19. Ibid 48-50.
20. Bruce Lawrence, "Holy War (Jihad) in Islamic Religion and Nation-State Ideologies" Just War and Jihad, ed. John Kelsay and James Johnson (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991) 144.
21. Mark Twain, The War Prayer (New York: Harper and Row, 1984).
22. Russell 24.
23. Luke 12:3.
24. Gregory Pence and Lynn Stephens, Seven Dilemmas in World Religions (New York: Paragon House, 1994) 35.
25. Mark 14:6.
26. Russell 27.
27. See Annie Laurie Gaylor pp. 401-410, 103-124, and 191-196, respectively.
28. Ibid 402-3.
29. Ibid 196.
30. Marvin Perry, Joseph Peden, and Theodore Von Laue, Sources of the Western Tradition, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995) 9-12.
31. Qtd. in Pence and Stephens 27.
32. See Matthew 22:19-21, Colossians 3:22-24, and Pence and Stephens 26-42.
33. Russell 47.