Belief in god – whether we’re talking about the monotheistic gods of the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic faiths, or one of the pantheon of other gods that’s out there in the mists of our mythology – is dangerous indeed. For an individual, living in a generally secularist, tolerant, and open society, belief may be a solace for them. In times of fear, loneliness, or bereavement, some people will appreciate the thought of a powerful entity who knows you deeply and cares what happens to you. Despite the lack of evidence in such a deity, many people cling to the ideals of the entity’s rules and teachings. If it works for that individual, then so be it. Everyone should be allowed to worship according to their own views, so there’s nothing wrong with that level of moderation and comfort, is there?
Maybe not, but as Sam Harris argues, in The End of Faith, moderate believers like this implicitly encourage the idea that faith is something to be respected – that it’s all right to believe in completely ludicrous things for which there is no evidence. And this in turn encourages religious faith, which is where the real dangers begin.
There has long been dispute between believers who claim that their particular religion was created by a deity and that their holy book (whichever one it might be) is “the word of god,” and those who say that religions are man-made. Scholarship and historical and archaeological research support the latter, but Susan Blackmore argues that people rather forget that distinction and not think about religions as having been made up by particular individuals, but as having evolved over long periods of time, using lots of people as their copying and selecting machinery.
Think of the times in which the great religions began. All over the world, in villages, towns, or in great city states, there would appear epileptics who saw visions, charlatans who worked miracles by trickery, orators of great skill and persuasiveness, and all sorts of others who would gather small groups of followers around them. They still appear today and form cults that thrive for a while, and then usually die out. Human nature being what it is, their members want their own group to grow, and so bring in their friends, and persuade others that they have the answer to life’s miseries and mysteries, or that they are superior to outsiders.
Then there’s the cost of believing. Many are tempted by Pascal’s Wager: if I deny that God exists and I’m wrong, I might really go to hell, but if I believe in him and I’m wrong, there’s no problem. First and foremost, the insulting and ingratiating tone of that argument is rather odious, wouldn’t you say? If I was confronted by the ineffable almighty at the pearly gates or some such equivalent, what would he / she / it being rather impressed by? Honest, intellectual disbelief, based on reasoned argument, or a feigned belief in order to get into heaven? This is intellectual dishonesty of the highest order. Second, how can you be expected to feign faith? If you don’t believe, then you don’t believe; it’s as simple as that, and any god with genuine omnipotence would see through that charade in a heartbeat.
But there another problem; the enormous cost of belief. There is not only the mental and intellectual burden of having to take on false, disturbing, and incompatible beliefs, but the cost in time and money. Religious memes capture people’s time to get themselves spread. Just as the cold virus makes people sneeze to get itself spread, so religions make people sing hymns, say prayers, and chant, and so spread the word of God. They also induce them to part with large sums of money to build glorious mosques, churches, and synagogues and to pay the wages of priests who in turn spread the word of god.
And how did they get this way? Because less effective versions of the religions, with less dangerous tricks and weapons, failed to infect enough people.
Let me give you a few more examples of why religion really is so dangerous;
1. Religion promotes tribalism. Infidel, heathen, heretic. Religion divides insiders from outsiders. Rather than assuming good intentions, 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,” the Koran tells us in 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, outsiders are seen as enemies of god and goodness, potential agents of Satan, lacking in morality, and not to be trusted. Believers might huddle together, anticipating martyrdom. 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 Iron Age was a time of rampant superstition, ignorance, inequality, racism, misogyny, and violence. Slavery had God’s sanction. Women and children were literal possessions of men. Warlords practiced scorched earth warfare. Desperate people sacrificed animals, 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 many 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. Religion 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, or even to give to charitable events that proselytise whilst giving. 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, religion often redirects moral disgust and indignation, 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 righteous rules on operating rooms.
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. And 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 Cadbury’s or PriceWaterhouseCooper. 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 people feel prosperous and secure, the hold of religion weakens.
Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. As a result, it doesn’t have anything close to a reality check, and it’s therefore uniquely armoured against criticism, questioning, and self-correction. It’s uniquely protected against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality, and extreme, grotesque immorality.
Depressingly, I can already hear the chorus singing their protests. “But not all religion is like that! Not all believers are crazy extremists! Some religions adapt to new evidence and changing social mores! It’s not fair to criticise all religion just because some believers do bad things!” This is a point I’ll want to come back to.
The thing that uniquely defines religion, the thing that sets it apart from every other ideology or hypothesis or social network, is the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities. Of course it has other elements – community, charity, philosophy, inspiration for art, etc – but those things exist in the secular world, too. They’re not specific to religion. The thing that uniquely defines religion is belief in supernatural entities. Without that belief, it’s not religion.
And with that belief, the capacity for religion to do harm gets raised up to an alarmingly high level – because there’s no reality check. Because religion is a belief in the invisible and unknowable – and it’s therefore never expected to prove that it’s right, or even show good evidence for why it’s right – its capacity to do harm can spin into the stratosphere.
Let’s compare religious belief with political ideology. After all, religion isn’t the only belief that’s armoured against criticism, questioning, and self-correction. Religion isn’t the only belief that leads people to ignore evidence in favour of their settled opinion. And religion is not the only belief that inspires good people to do evil things. Political ideology can do all that quite nicely. People have committed horrors to perpetuate Communism: an ideology many of those people sincerely believed was best.
But even the most stubborn political ideology will eventually crumble in the face of it not working. People can only be told for so long that under Communism everyone will live a life of luxury, or that in an unrestricted free market, the rising tide will lift all boats. A political ideology makes promises about this life and this world. If the life of luxury and rising boats aren’t forthcoming, people eventually notice. But religion is different.
But if God’s rules and promises aren’t working out, followers still follow them, because the ultimate judge and judgment are invisible. There is no proof, and no expectation that there should be any. In fact, with many religions, that idea that you should expect to have proof is blasphemy. A major part of many religious doctrines is that trusting the tenets of your faith without evidence is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue. (“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” — John 20:29)
Religious extremists, whether the Taliban in the Islamic world or the Christian Right in the United States, don’t care about separation of church and state. They don’t care about democracy. They don’t care about respecting other people’s right to live differently from them. In very extreme cases, they don’t care about law, or basic principles of morality, or even human life. What matters is making god’s will happen. In their mind, god created everything that exists and therefore, God’s will trumps everything.
And since God’s will is invisible, inaudible, and entirely unverifiable, there’s no reality check on this dreadful path. There’s no reality check saying that their actions are having a terrible effect in the world around them. The world around them is, quite literally, irrelevant. The next world is what matters. And since there’s no way to conclusively demonstrate what will and won’t get you a good place in that world, or whether that world even exists, the sky’s the limit. There’s no way in their world to test the assertion that god wants women to wear burqas and have their genitals mutilated, or that god wants us to ban same-sex marriage and teach children dangerous lies about sex. The brake lines of morality have been cut.
If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife – and there’s no absolute way to prove whether or not that’s true, although we can lean more towards one way or the other with facts, for those who choose to accept evidence and reason into their lives – people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith, to an appalling degree. More commonly, if people believe in infinite bliss in the afterlife, they’ll be more willing to accept an appalling degree of oppression and injustice in this life. From anybody. Oddly, this is often framed as a plus – “Religion gives people hope in hardship” – and people accept it.
If we prioritised this life, we would never terrorise children by telling them they’ll be tortured in fire forever if they don’t obey our rules. We would never tell them to imagine putting their hands in a fire, to imagine the crackling and burning and screaming pain, and then to imagine doing that for a minute. An hour. A day. A lifetime. Eternity. Not unless we were horribly abusive.
But when people think the next life is more important than this one – when people think the infinite burning and torture is really going to happen if their children don’t obey god’s word – they’ll gladly give their children nightmarish visions of pain and torture, dispensed by the god who supposedly created them and loves them. They’ll do it without a second thought.
Teaching children about hell is child abuse. Nothing but the unverifiable promise of permanent bliss or torture in the afterlife would make loving, decent, non-abusive parents inflict it on their children.
Religion provides a uniquely stubborn justification for evil. It is uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self-correction, and that this armor protects it against the reality checks that act, to a limited degree and in the long run, to keep evil in check. I’m saying that religion takes the human impulses to evil, and cuts the brake line, and sends them careening down a hill and into the center of town.
Even moderate religion does this. Not to nearly the same degree as extreme religion, of course. If all religion were moderate, ecumenical, separate from government, supportive of science, and accepting of non-belief – well, atheists would still disagree with it, but most of us would be able to allow it a place in society as it would become nothing more than a personal choice.
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 so 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.)
Without religion, we would still have community. Charity. Social responsibility. Philosophy. Ethics. Comfort. Solace. Art. In countries where less than half the population believes in God, these qualities and activities are all flourishing. In fact, they’re flourishing a lot more than they are in countries with high rates of religious belief.
We don’t need religion to have any of these things. And we’d be better off without it.
That is why belief in god is not just a harmless choice; it is a dangerous delusion.