June 6, 2020

What's Wrong With Religion?

atomic bomb

Regular readers of Atheist Revolution have seen me give countless reasons to regard religion as a destructive force. Still, one of the most common questions I receive from those who are new here is why I say religion is destructive. "What's wrong with religion? Look at all the good that has come from religion." I think this question makes sense, especially when one considers the perspective of those who were raised to value a religious tradition.

There are at least two problems with this line of thought (and probably many more). First, much of the good attributed to religion would (and often does) happen without religion. Thus, it isn't always clear that we wouldn't have as much (or even more) good in the world if religion had never emerged. Second, even if we decide to credit religion with a great deal of the good in the world, this hardly makes up for the harm it has caused. It is hard to deny, for example, that some Catholic clergy have done some good things, but does that negate the evil some have perpetrated? I don't think so. I suspect most of their victims don't think so either.

Being as charitable as possible, we may consider the possibility that those asking this question have a point. Maybe the overall good from religion far outweighs the bad. Maybe the costs of religion run amok are significantly less than the benefits. What then are the costs? What are the bad things about religion that would need to be outweighed by the good?

Off the top of my head and in no particular order, religion has brought us:

  1. Christians slaughtering pagans (315 - 6th century)
  2. Christians slaughtering Muslims (Crusades)
  3. Muslims slaughtering Christians (Crusades)
  4. Christians torturing and killing "heretics" (Inquisition, witch trials)
  5. Christians burning books, heavy metal records, etc. (modern U.S. history)
  6. Muslims calling for the death of authors they didn't like (e.g., Rushdie)
  7. Christians supporting slavery on biblical grounds (~ American Civil War)
  8. Christians opposing suffrage on biblical grounds
  9. Muslims repeatedly calling for death to all Christians and Jews (e.g., cartoon rage)
  10. Jews and Muslims killing each other (from the origin of Israel to present)
  11. Christians bombing abortion clinics
  12. Muslim terrorism in America (WTC, 9/11) and around the world
  13. Christians slaughtering Jews
  14. Christians slaughtering Native Americans

Of course, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. A comprehensive list would be longer and more depressing than anyone would want to read. We could add all the impediments to science and how they have restricted our progress. We could add countless human rights violations (e.g., the cost of fundamentalist Christianity in the U.S. to LGBT persons). It would be a long list.

Even if religion has brought (false) hope, (false) comfort, (false) optimism about the future, a willingness to accept one's fate (and not rock the boat of the ruling class), and has been used to explain why some people do good things (people who would be good people with or without superstition), this pales in comparison to the long and distinguished history of religious atrocities. For the sake of humanity, it is time to let go of this destructive superstition.

An early version of this post first appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006. It was revised to fix broken links and improve clarity in 2020.