Does Religion Cause More Harm than Good? Brits Say Yes. Here’s Why They May be Right.

En Espanol.

 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 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

Why Good Christians do Bad Things to Win Converts
15 Bible Texts Reveal Why “God’s Own Party” is at War with Women
Why Bible Believers Have a Hard Time Getting Child Protection Right

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Christianity in the Public Square. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Does Religion Cause More Harm than Good? Brits Say Yes. Here’s Why They May be Right.

  1. Donna Faulkner says:

    Wonderful article Valerie! Well, I finally after over eight years spoke out and did a video that’s up on YouTube. It was my first one and I was not feeling good at all but it’s important that I leave it up until I do another one that is shorter and better.

    It’s called…

    11:11 wake up call about traditional Christianity

    Enjoy your day…


    Sent from my iPhone



  2. shatara46 says:

    From Wikipedia:
    “Religion is the opium of the people” is one of the most frequently paraphrased statements of German economist Karl Marx. It was translated from the German original, “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes” and is often rendered as “religion… is the opiate of the masses.” The quotation originates from the introduction of his proposed work A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; this work was never written, but the introduction (written in 1843) was published in 1844 in Marx’s own journal Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, a collaboration with Arnold Ruge. The phrase “This opium you feed your people” appeared in 1797 in Marquis de Sade’s text L’Histoire de Juliette and Novalis’s “[R]eligion acts merely as an opiate” around the same time. The full quote from Karl Marx translates as: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.
    The theme of your article, Valerie, is nothing new. Intelligent people have known for centuries that mega organized religions are a blight upon the earth. Certainly there is enough history to prove your point beyond any shadow of doubt. The man/prophet/god-man or whomever called Jesus constantly spoke against organized religion and continually, deliberately broke its rules and regulations. I wonder how he would have felt had he known that his name would be used to invent one of the most powerful, dictatorial and violent religion?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Johnny Ojanpera says:

    Reblogged this on johnny ojanpera and commented:
    I have found this to be true, straight across the board. Excellent writing!


  4. Ferdi Businger says:

    Great article, Valerie! You can see it here in the US, that states with high rates of church goers tend to be less economically prosperous, and less diverse and tolerant. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing, but clearly, religion doesn’t seem to elevate people’s circumstances.


  5. mriana says:

    Great article, Valerie and I agree with what you said.


  6. tiffany267 says:

    Reblogged this on Tiffany's Non-Blog and commented:
    Couldn’t agree more with these thoughts… “the least religious societies also tend to be the most peaceful, prosperous and equitable” not surprising!


  7. 7. Religion kills children, and manipulates the state so that their followers are not prosecuted for it.


  8. Interesting that we could still discuss if the Brits are right :-) We could indeed run this survey in as many countries as possible. What we would see would be interesting and enlightening, such as the actual impact of oppression for example. And yet, what really matters is what each and everyone of us thinks/experiences/lives acknowledging that we take time to grow. In that respect, one might reach the profound realization that the concept of religion is separate from spirituality, which is itself separate from the concept of acknowledging a higher entity. As a creation of man, any institution let it be religion or NGOs are born as a tool to deliver love and compassion and as they grow and get bigger they morph into a self-sustaining entity which less and less delivers on its noble original intention. So we need organizational structures to deliver efficiently what is important but we also need to have the courage to renew them by using transparency, the courage to change, creativity. etc. The most enlightening and beautiful picture I know for this process of swarmship is the ballet of a starling flock. (
    As always zillion thanks Valerie!


  9. gwpj says:

    A great article, Valerie. Thank you for sharing it.


  10. gwpj says:

    Reblogged this on Musings by George Polley and commented:
    A thoughtful article about a controversial, but important, subject.


  11. willowdot21 says:

    Every single war that has ever been fought and will ever be fought has religion at it’s basis.
    Travel the world look at the riches of the churchs, synagogue, temples, and mosques then look outside at the pain and poverty.
    Great article well though out and written. xxx


    • Do you think of the Nazi movement and communism as secular religions?

      Liked by 1 person

      • willowdot21 says:

        Yes most definitely and the Mao Zedong too though that was not a war just a horrendous glitch.


      • shatara46 says:

        I’m going to have to study the difference between “secular religion” and whatever other religions are called but definitely, any following that leans heavily on blind obedience, blind observance of laws however they violate one’s personal sense of morality, and total exclusiveness can only be called religion. Following a Hitler is in no way different than following a Christ: the followers don’t know who their leader is, it’s personality cult of a figurehead or talking head bolstered by a powerful organization.


  12. A recent article on suggested that there may be a weak, but statistically positive influence to religion.

    I doubt it.

    The one factor not normally controlled for, either in that article nor in the studies that support it, is that religion often promotes a sense of community – and it is that community that, in my view, is responsible for the vast majority of the positive effects of religion, such as they are. It has long been known to criminologists (though almost universally ignored in other areas of social research), that criminals become that way from a sense of betrayal by the “system.” So they see vengeance, as well as personal gain, as a reason to betray the system itself. Substitute the word “community” for the word “system,” and you can instantly see why the community-building of religion has the limited positive effect it does. People do not feel inclined to betray a community that supports them, but rather a sense of obligation to support it. And, in return, the community supports the individual. It is my guess that this factor alone accounts for at least 95% of the positive effects of religion, such as they are, noted in that article. My hunch is that if the positive effects of community (which themselves don’t require religion for their existence) are controlled for, the overwhelming negative effects of religion would be undeniably obvious.

    Beyond that, Valerie, the negative effects you have enumerated here are too serious to ignore, not to mention the induced trauma that especially dogmatic religions induce in thousands of victims. And for that reason, the communitarian values that religion promotes are outweighed by the damaged people in their millions that religion leaves behind.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. shatara46 says:

    Scott Bidstrup concludes his comment thus: “the communitarian values that religion promotes are outweighed by the damaged people in their millions that religion leaves behind.”
    Two word comment: Brilliant conclusion.


  14. Dan Munson says:

    To Dr. Tarico’s excellent analysis I would offer just one small dissent. In her reason #6, she asserts that “Hinduism, Buddhism [and] Christianity” are institutions just as adept as for-profit corporations in the game of growing their wealth and power. I would largely absolve Hinduism and Buddhism from this particular charge, but would definitely include Islam, Mormonism (not really a “Christian” faith, although they do their level best to hide their differences) and the Jehovah Witnesses. I cannot recall, for example, ever recall being proselytized by a soap-box Hindu preacher. Some religions simply are not “messianic,” not driven by any impulse or perceived “commandment” to go out and convert others to their faith. Mormons, Christians, JW’s . . .these people are out there, every day, trying to gain converts and “grow” their flocks (because “flocks” can be fleeced, and they are very good at that!).

    That being said, I am totally on board with the thesis that “religion” in modern society is a non-productive, and often harmful, pursuit.


  15. Great article! Thanks to John Loftus (Debunking Christianity) for posting the link. Read Trusting Doubt and loved it, but had never taken the time to find your blog.


  16. Denis says:

    Religion fails the “benefit” test analysed by ALL these 42 criteria :
    “Agriculture :
    – (*1) Inefficiency (Workers Per Hectare of Cropland) (World Resources Institute) Correlation=0.66”
    – (*2) Agricultural (non) Value (Rating of ISIC Categories 1-5) (OECD) Correlation=0.22
    “Crime :
    – (*3) USA Prison Inmate Numbers (FOI Federal Bureau of Prisons) Correlation=0.95”
    – (*4) Execution Rate (Per Capita) (UN et al) Correlation=0.29
    “Disasters :
    – (*5) Average Number Of Tornadoes (By State – USA Data) Correlation=0.43”
    – (*6) Disaster Risk Reduction [Unpreparedness] (Hyogo Rating) Correlation=0.30
    “Economy :
    – (*7) (-ve) GDP Per Capita (World Bank & OECD) Correlation=0.64”
    – (*8) Percent Below Poverty Line (CIA World Factboook) Correlation=0.51
    “Education :
    – (*9) Ignorance Of religion (PEW) Correlation=(See Link)”
    – (*10) Less Educated (Psychology Today) Correlation=(See Link)
    – (*11) Lower Intelligence (Psychology Today) Correlation=(See Link)
    – (*12) Poor Mathematical Literacy (OECD PISA) Correlation=0.67
    – (*13) Poor Science Literacy (OECD PISA) Correlation=0.65
    “Energy :
    – (*14) Traditional (Non Renewable) Power Generation (World Bank) Correlation=0.49”
    – (*15) Geothermal (non) Power Generation (Lund and Freeston World Congress 2000) Correlation=0.28
    “Environment :
    – (*16) Lack of Water Improvement (UNICEF) Correlation=0.66”
    “Family :
    – (*17) Cheating On Spouse Correlation=(See Link)”
    – (*18) Increased Risk Of LGBT Suicide in Counselling (Williams Institute) Correlation=(See Link)
    – (*19) Likelihood to Divorce (Barna) Correlation=(See Link)
    – (*20) Uncertainty of Paternity (Putative father vs Actual father – BMJ) Correlation=0.76
    – (*21) Child Brides : Percent Women Married By Age 18 (UNICEF) Correlation=0.37
    – (*22) Child Maltreatment Death Rate (UNICEF) Correlation=0.08
    “Government :
    – (*23) Protection of borrowers and lenders (World Bank) Correlation=0.34”
    – (*24) Generosity of Foreign Aid (% Of GDP) (OECD) Correlation=0.32
    “Health :
    – (*25) Faith Healing Related Child Mortality Correlation=(See Link)”
    – (*26) Obesity (NCBI) Correlation=(See Link)
    – (*27) Infant Mortality (WHO) Correlation=0.73
    – (*28) Life Expectancy (WHO) Correlation=0.66
    – (*29) (Un)Vaccination Rates (UNICEF) Correlation=0.33
    “Justice :
    – (*30) Women Who Believe That Wife / Partner Beating is Justified (UNICEF) Correlation=0.55”
    – (*31) Perception of Corruption (Transparency International) Correlation=0.51
    “labour :
    – (*32) Rigidity of employment index (Worldbank Development Indicator) Correlation=0.16”
    “Lifestyle :
    – (*33) Personal Dissatisfaction (Unhappiness) Rating (Erasmus University Rotterdam) Correlation=0.36”
    “Media :
    – (*34) Internet Unavailability (Internet World Stats) Correlation=0.64”
    “Military :
    – (*35) Battlefield Deaths (UCDP – Uppsala Conflict Data Program) Correlation=0.19”
    – (*36) Military Expenditure (%GDP) (CIA World Factbook) Correlation=0.13
    “People :
    – (*37) Cheat For Financial Gain (University of Regina) Correlation=(See Link)”
    – (*38) Teenage Pregnancy Rate (UNICEF) Correlation=0.35
    “Sports :
    – (*39) Inability to Win Summer Olympic Medals (IOC) Correlation=0.56”
    – (*40) Inability to Win Winter Olympic Medals (IOC) Correlation=0.56
    “Terrorism :
    – (*41) Global terrorism Index (Institute for Economics & Peace) Correlation=0.24”
    – (*42) Total Injured and Wounded In Terrorism 1970 – 2012 (Global Terrorism Database) Correlation=0.19

    References :











































  17. 1EarthUnited says:

    There are cases to be made, for and against organized religion. Problem is human nature, whether it’s political, societal, cultural – the desire for power and control usurps the very fundamental principles of religion, which is to ennoble us and help us love one another.
    It seems a better solution would be to raise our consciousness instead of faulting religion as a whole, simply take responsibility for our own mind, open our heart.


    • shatara46 says:

      Ok, but then, what possible use would any “raised consciousness” have of religion? Religion exists because people will not “take responsibility for their own mind” as you put it. If they did, they would not be religious. Spiritual most likely, but never religious.


  18. Esben says:

    There is a liberal view that promotes victim-hood in everything and this may inadvertently assist the shielding of religions from responsibilities. Religion is the original politic as it is about social control and power. We move the oppressed into the privileged straight passed equality, in an attempt to correct a wrong. It then becomes promotion. The aim should be to make it irrelevant.


    • Yes. There is also a different liberal view that promotes curiosity, future orientation, and openness to cultural evolution. Sometimes adaptive and maladaptive ideas get bundled and handed down together, and I think one of humanity’s most important and humbling challenges is to sort out which are which.


      • Esben says:

        Indeed, they do get bundled which is a disservice to the liberal ideal. Seperating those, however, usually gets caught up in the battle for the moral centre, as it does in any political camp, when things polarise. All belief systems gravitates around power, influence and dominance and the good often gets tangled with bad. It takes courage to counter what is bad and wrong in what you believe. The liberal ideal should have an advantage here.


  19. colors52 says:

    Great! This is something like egg and chicken debate.No one is sure till today about how religious beliefs dominate one civilization after other.


  20. Reblogged this on oddrops and commented:
    This is an interesting comment on the Huffington Post survey that I posted about [before](


  21. Pingback: Kill in the name of religion | S.O.S. Kashmir

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s