Most British people think religion causes more harm than good according to a survey commissioned by the Huffington Post. Surprisingly, even among those who describe themselves as “very religious” 20 percent say that religion is harmful to society. For that we can probably thank the internet, which broadcasts everything from Isis beheadings, to stories about Catholic hospitals denying care to miscarrying women, to lists of wild and weird religious beliefs, to articles about psychological harms from Bible-believing Christianity.
In 2010, sociologist Phil Zuckerman published Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. Zuckerman lined up evidence that the least religious societies also tend to be the most peaceful, prosperous and equitable, with public policies that help people to flourish while decreasing both desperation and economic gluttony.
We can debate whether prosperity and peace lead people to be less religious or vice versa. Indeed evidence supports the view that religion thrives on existential anxiety. But even if this is the case, there’s good reason to suspect that the connection between religion and malfunctioning societies goes both ways. It may be hard to measure whether net-net religion does more harm than good, but here are six ways we know that religions make peaceful prosperity harder to achieve.
- Religion promotes tribalism. Infidel, heathen, heretic. Religion divides insiders from outsiders, as illustrated by the familiar Emo Phillips joke about one believer pushing another from a bridge because of obscure doctrinal differences. Jokes aside, adherents often are taught to treat outsiders with suspicion. “Be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers,” says the Christian Bible. “They wish that you disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them,” says the Koran (Sura 4:91). At best, teachings like these discourage or even forbid the kinds of friendship and intermarriage that help clans and tribes become part of a larger whole. At worst, rules about fairness, honesty or compassion apply only to fellow believers. Outsiders are seen as enemies of God and goodness, potential agents of Satan, lacking in morality and not to be trusted. Believers huddle together, anticipating martyrdom, and when simmering tensions erupt, societies fracture along sectarian fault lines.
- Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age. Concubines, magical incantations, chosen people, stonings . . . The “Axial Age,” when the world’s largest religions got their start, was a time of rampant superstition, ignorance, inequality, racism, misogyny, and violence. Slavery had God’s sanction. Women and children were literally possessions of men. Warlords practiced scorched earth warfare. Desperate people sacrificed animals, children, agricultural products, and enemy soldiers as burnt offerings intended to appease dangerous gods. Sacred texts including the Bible, Torah and Koran all preserve and protect fragments of Iron Age culture, putting a god’s name and endorsement on some of the very worst human impulses. Any believer looking to excuse his own temper, sense of superiority, warmongering, bigotry, or planetary destruction can find validation in writings that claim to be authored by God. Today, humanity’s moral consciousness is evolving, grounded in an ever deeper and broader understanding of the Golden Rule. But conservative believers can’t move forward. They are anchored to the Iron Age. This pits them against change in a never-ending battle that consumes public energy and slows creative problem solving.
- Religion makes a virtue out of faith. Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus. So sing children in Sunday schools across America. The Lord works in mysterious ways, pastors tell believers who have been shaken by horrors like brain cancer or a tsunami. Faith is a virtue. As science eats away at territory once held by religion, traditional religious beliefs require greater and greater mental defenses against threatening information. To stay strong, religion trains believers to practice self-deception, shut out contradictory evidence, and trust authorities rather than their own capacity to think. This approach seeps into other parts of life. Government, in particular, becomes a fight between competing ideologies rather than a quest to figure out practical, evidence-based solutions that promote wellbeing.
- Religions diverts generous impulses and good intentions. Feeling sad about Haiti? Give to our mega-church. Crass financial appeals during times of crisis thankfully are not the norm, but religion does routinely redirect generosity in order to perpetuate religion itself. Generous people are encouraged to give till it hurts to promote the church itself rather than the general welfare. Each year, thousands of missionaries throw themselves into the hard work of saving souls rather than saving lives or saving our planetary life support system. Their work, tax free, gobbles up financial and human capital. Besides exploiting positive moral energy like kindness or generosity that could be put to better use, religion redirects moral disgust and indignation, often attaching these emotions to arbitrary religious rules rather than questions of real harm. Orthodox Jews spend money on wigs for women and double dishwashers. Evangelical parents, forced to choose between righteousness and love, kick queer teens out onto the street. Catholic bishops impose theological rules on operating rooms. The combination drains good energy out of society like intestinal parasites suck nutrients out of the human body.
- Religion teaches helplessness. Que sera, sera—what will be will be. Let go and let God. We’ve all heard these phrases, but sometimes we don’t recognize the deep relationship between religiosity and resignation. In the most conservative sects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, women are seen as more virtuous if they let God manage their family planning. Droughts, poverty and cancer get attributed to the will of God rather than bad decisions or bad systems. Believers wait for God to solve problems they could solve themselves. This attitude harms society at large as well as individuals. When today’s largest religions came into existence, ordinary people had little power to change social structures either through technological innovation or advocacy. Living well and doing good were largely personal matters. When this mentality persists, religion inspires personal piety without social responsibility. Structural problems can be ignored as long as the believer is kind to friends and family and generous to the tribal community of believers.
- Religions seek power. Think corporate personhood. Religions are man-made institutions, just like for-profit corporations are. Like any corporation, to survive and grow a religion must find a way to build power and wealth and compete for market share. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity . . . any large enduring religious institution is as expert at this as Coca-cola or Chevron. And just like for-profit behemoths, they are willing to wield their power and wealth in the service of self-perpetuation, even it harms society at large. In fact, unbeknown to religious practitioners, harming society may actually be part of religion’s survival strategy. In the words of sociologist Phil Zuckerman and researcher Gregory Paul, “Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity.” When members of a society feel prosperous and secure the hold of religion weakens.
Until recently, most people have believed that religion does more good than harm. Even many who personally identified as not-very-religious thought of “faith” as benign—an inspiration for social service, a source of good moral values, a comfort. And indeed, religion can be all of these. But 911 changed the landscape permanently. Our childlike and unquestioning faith in faith was shattered. The ever ugly presence of the Christian Right and militant Islam have further wedged open a Pandora’s box of questions that religious authorities may have trouble closing down, though most certainly they will try.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.