In this post I am going to explore the dangers of religion. For some context, I have written often that I think that there are good things that go by the name religion that atheists should try to salvage from authoritarians, irrationalists and bigots. I am generally optimistic about the idea that we could have numerous kinds of faithless, atheistic, pluralistic, non-sectarian, egalitarian, rationalistic groups that interweave to one extent or another their identity formation practices, their rites for marking major life events, their education of children in values, their rituals for rational behavior modification, their meditative practices for physiological and mental benefits, their celebration of important values with holidays, their open-ended metaphysical speculations about the nature of themselves and the universe, etc. I think if people have groups that combine some significant number of those things together they are, functionally, participating in a “religion”.
As Eric argued in his excellent concluding post of his month long series on atheism and Wicca, it simply plays into a theist’s lie that atheists must be irreligious. I think it is confused to think that the various personal and social practices which I listed in the above paragraph are themselves what’s intrinsically wrong with the irrationalistic, faith-based, regressive, totalizing, politically greedy religions that repulse so many atheists and make them not want to have anything to do with anything that remotely might reek of religiousness. And so I share Eric’s ideal that these tools for personal and group formation be put to the service of rationalistic thinking and acting, rather than abandoned as inherently bad. In this vein, I have argued in the past that religion does not poison everything, but rather it is faith that poisons religion (and everything else)!
And I think there is a lot left to religion even if you gut it of a list of sixteen awful things I came up with which need to be assiduously avoided, which presently make existing religions so noxious. And since I think the good parts of religion are separable from the bad, and that a great many humans (though not all) have clung to various of the good things religion features because they perceive real benefits in them, and that no tools which can help human beings should be discarded entirely, I recommend the hard work of cleaning up the good parts of religion and rehabilitating them and forming what I would call a “true religion”, i.e., a religion which is truthful, which trains people in truth, and which helps people in pragmatic, scientifically and ethically approvable ways to live as well as they can.
So now, in this post, I want to consider how even the good parts of religion can be dangerous. Some things are “just bad”, i.e. nearly always harmful, even if in some isolated hypothetical cases people might dream up they may be the least of all evils. Authoritarianism is just bad. Faith—belief not properly proportioned to evidence is just bad. Sexism is just bad. Irrationalism is just bad. Superstition is just bad. Etc.
But other things are good and can nonetheless be done badly. Governing can be done well or badly so governments can be good or bad. Believing can be done well or badly so beliefs can be good or bad. Basically any activity can be done well or badly.
So, with all these caveats, in this post, I want to explore how religion itself can be done badly. I want to think about how the stuff which is not intrinsically bad in religion can accidentally lead to bad in practice.
What is Religion?
As I have indicated above, I don’t think religion is any one thing. It is not just rituals. There are irreligious rituals. It is not just philosophical beliefs. Nor is it belief in supernatural agents, and nor is it faith, rites, meditative practices, or anything else. All these things can occur without religion. And some religions can lack a normally occurring religious feature. And sometimes a few components of a religion can be present and yet it still not really be a religion—maybe just a little bit curiously religious.
So what all religions share is not any specific property but a family resemblance between general patterns of developing practices and interconnecting them with beliefs and identities. What all the religions share therefore is the role of interlinking. And it is the practice of interlinking which can go seriously wrong and lead to all the horrors that make many atheists want to avoid the whole enterprise.
Religion’s ability to interlink thought and practice and identity is what makes it so powerful. This is because what you think is integrated with what you do and who you are and each of these things keep reinforcing and magnifying each other. Stating your beliefs becomes much more than an intellectual exercise, it becomes a gesture of solidarity with your group. Rituals and meditative practices tied to genuine beliefs integrate physical ecstasies with the satisfactions of believing what one perceives to be true. The use of rituals to inculcate beliefs sinks them deeper into the brain and the shared rituals link people in powerful ways.
Why religion is so powerful is largely because it creates a way for the various parts of one’s life to reinforce the meaning and experience of each of the others. This is part of how even atheistic religions have sometimes succumbed in the past to totalizing tendencies. When each of the fundamental aspects of the self are bound up in one self-reinforcing perspective—one’s rituals, one’s identity, one’s fundamental metaphysical beliefs, one’s values, one’s politics, one’s community, one’s sexuality, one’s family, etc.—then it becomes harder to detach oneself from any of these things and assess them justly. It’s hard to reconsider a belief when it is systematically intertwined with nearly every other part of your psyche and practice.
We might speculate that the severe cognitive dissonance that modern people of faith experience whereby they live with the most incompatible of scientific and superstitious beliefs side by side is attributable to the fact that they fear more the practical dissonance of severing their beliefs from who they are and how they live. They will deal with a few grossly conflicting beliefs rather than risk deep conflicts in their families and their fundamental identities and their fundamental sense of identity.
So, there is great power in this if people could feel this way about scrupulous truthfulness and humaneness! But the question then becomes whether or not the dangers of people doing it wrongly are worse than the benefits that come from their doing it rightly.
How Religion Goes Bad
So, let’s unpack some more of the problems of this going wrongly:
1. Good believing requires believing in a way that proportions belief to evidence. Ritual reinforcement of a belief can have a brainwashing effect that works against training the mind in dialectic. Connecting metaphysical beliefs to identities and fundamental values makes it harder to reconsider them. People are already prone towards irrationalism and numerous cognitive biases. Religion itself (not just bad religiosity) functions in this way to exacerbate that problem.
2. Rituals are wonderful things. I love creating them for myself personally. And I think that they can be formulated according to the best principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to reinforce constructive habits of practice and thought. But, again, there are dangers in that many human minds are susceptible to obsessive attachments to rituals. Hence the shrieking, violently irrational response PZ Myers received for messing with a ritual object. There is a danger in giving people prescribed rituals to attach to and to bind up their identities and their communities with, rather than just informally encourage people to rituals that fit their idiosyncratic personal psycho-social needs best with none of the pressures that start to emerge when rituals become part of a full-fledged religion.
3. Successful groups are integral to successful human lives. Religious practices are powerful group formation tools. But strong groups risk becoming hatefully tribalistic. And the rituals and the strong emphasis on defining supreme values (even when it is the value of “reason” as it is among us identity-atheists) can risk exacerbating the human tendency towards out-group hatred as the flipside of in-group loyalty. This is another major part of how religion itself has frequently proved vulnerable to sectarianism and exclusivity. It’s not necessary by any means. There are inclusive and/or tolerant religions (or sects of religions that are inclusive and/or tolerant) but when they are not it is partially attributable to religion’s own inner workings that normal tendencies towards hostile behavior towards out-group members gets turned up to 11.
This is also exacerbated when faith beliefs are involved because then the rival groups wind up defining themselves most fundamentally on beliefs they hold most arbitrarily and which are less amenable to rational adjudication.
I could go on with each part of religion and how getting tied too tightly with the others gets dangerous. But to fill out the picture further, there are a few more things to address.
Nothing Can Be Sacred
First, Eric has recommended to atheists that we explicitly treat Being and Truth as sacred and consider the worship of gods or any other particular beings as “idolatrous”. In this, I hear monotheism repeated. Christians have for centuries interpreted the biblical prohibition against graven images as a warning that this would lead people to worship parts of creation rather than the Creator. Now Eric is not advocating believing in the demi-god that the superstitious Christians who think of God as a person like them believe in. But sophisticated philosophical theists also think that that God is an idol, the worship of human beings, and that we should always prevent ourselves from worshiping a god made in our own image rather than the ineffable source of all being God who is beyond all particular beings, even as they flow from Him.
In other words, philosophical monotheists all the time insist against idolatry and elevation of particular artifacts above their limited station. And yet these same religions are rife with superstitions. As Protestants are fond of charging, the Catholics have a long legacy of overly venerating “holy objects” and “holy people”. And the fundamentalist Christians idolize the Bible and the fundamentalist Muslims turn the prohibitions against images that people might venerate into a literally homicidal fanaticism against image makers from filmmakers to cartoonists when they dare depict Mohammed.
In other words, the idea that you can teach people to think of anything as sacred, even the thinnest and most intangible abstractions, and not have them start clinging to objects or people or particular ideas or books as sacred, is disproven time and time again by actual religious human beings’ behaviors.
Nothing can be sacred. Not even truth, not even freedom. There are always limitations on the worth of particular things and particular ideals.
Before Eric, Nietzsche himself warned that atheists were pious towards Truth. And it was his own devotedness to truth that led him to interrogate the limits of even its value. It was what led him to ask the “dangerous” question, “Why truth, why not untruth?” Every value we have must be interrogated for its functional worth for human flourishing. Truth is going to be worth valuing a whole lot. But it’s not sacred. There are times to lie.
Understanding the Dialectic of Secularism and Fundamentalism
Finally, a hypothesis. Religions have lost their iron grip on whole cultures in the West slowly through a process of secularization that has taken literally centuries. My hypothesis is that this has occurred as different aspects of life have gained autonomy. The more that governance was split off from the gods, the more that treatment of the “soul” has shifted from the confessional booth to the psychiatrist”s couch, the more that the study of the universe has left monasteries and happened in self-sufficient universities, etc., is the more that religion has been relegated to dealing with a narrower set of roles until it is left holding the bag of only the most unworldly and unnecessary superstitions and the vaguest metaphysics to prop them up. Sciences, technologies, and practices have replaced distinctively religious thinking and practice stage by stage in the West. Religion is left a ghastly ghost chaser.
Fundamentalists feel this painfully. This is why they want their religions to retake control of the whole secular sphere from politics to sex to medicine to science. In their personal lives they fuse the various parts of their lives as tightly as they can through religious beliefs and practices and community and identity. The fracturing that happens though when they are asked to hold off on religiously doing their psychiatry or their public school teaching or their medicine or their art or their governing, is something they find psychologically and religiously intolerable. They get such immense joy out of letting their religion swallow up all the parts of their lives that they want it to swallow up the whole social sphere as well.
In Western Christianity, this fundamentalist ideal is a reactionary romantic delusion. In Islamic countries that lack sustainable secular institutions that can take over for religion in governing, educating, etc., this delusion is a last ditch nihilistic strategy of people who innately mistrust modernity with all its fracturing to be any good for them.