The Shadow and the Flame

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I’m an atheist because I consider myself a deeply moral person.

If religion were just a collection of benign cultural practices, of special clothes and distinct cuisine and silly rituals on the weekends, I wouldn’t spend so much time writing about it. I’d still consider beliefs about gods and the afterlife to be false, but I’d probably let it pass and find something more worthwhile to do with my life.

But religion isn’t benign. It’s a cause of great human suffering, not just in ancient history but here and now, in the world today. And this isn’t just a contingent fact, a could-have-been-otherwise quirk of history: I argue that it’s inherent to the nature of religion that this is true. Whatever good it can justly claim credit for has always been and will always be diluted by an undercurrent of xenophobia, prejudice, anti-intellectualism, and violence.

This must be the case, because religious morality is founded not on advancing human well-being or happiness, but on obeying what one presumes to be the will of God. If that belief lines up with human welfare, well and good; but when it doesn’t, the outcomes are dreadful. Thus, when religion improves our happiness, it does so only by coincidence, just as a dice roll that’s sometimes favorable to the gambler and sometimes not. And when those dice of chance fall the wrong way, outrages are the result. Consider some of the harms that faith has wrought:

Religion justifies atrocious cruelty. When any person or group is cast as an enemy of God, then any suffering that believers wish to inflict on them isn’t just allowable, it’s positively holy. In some parts of the world, for example, evangelical Christianity has given rise to witchcraft frenzies where parents torture and cast out their own children, encouraged by shiny-suited preachers all the while. Right here in America, there are educated, well-spoken theologians and popular authors who author sincere arguments for the goodness of slavery, genocide, and beating one’s children into compliance.

Religion is anti-science. When any book or tradition is presented as the final and complete word of God, there will always arise fundamentalists who are tempted to read it literally and to reject any and all knowledge that comes from any other source. Thus, in the 21st century, church-state watchdog groups regularly have to battle creationist kooks who believe the world is younger than the oldest cities on it and that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. In the 21st century, there are powerful legislators – not fringe crackpots, but elected members of the U.S. Congress – who are fervently opposed to reining in carbon emissions, on the grounds that God wouldn’t permit the Earth’s climate to change too much anyway. In the 21st century, children still die agonizing deaths from easily curable ailments because their parents choose prayer over medicine.

Religion is anti-free-speech. For the same reason, when any book or tradition is treated as the expression of God’s will, there will always be those who regard any contrary thought or dissent as a blasphemous insult that should be punished. The U.S. has mostly escaped this plague, but all over the world, we see laws that criminalize any speech which hurts religious people’s feelings: in Europe, in India, in Pakistan and Indonesia, and in most Muslim-majority countries. There are clerics who argue in total conviction that defacing a book is a much worse crime than murdering a human being.

Religion is anti-woman and anti-human rights. The struggle for LGBT equality, like many social-justice struggles before it, is one where most churches have planted themselves firmly on the wrong side of history. They’re bound to lose, but they’re still promoting hate and causing vast human misery in the meantime, as they fight to hold back the tide of progress.

But less remarked-upon, yet even more destructive, is the harm that religion has done and is still doing to women. Nearly every major world faith holds firm to the teaching that society should be a patriarchy where women are the social and legal inferiors of men, deprived of choice in who to marry, how much education to get, whether to pursue a career, how many children to have. All the most powerful organized faiths don’t permit women to be clergy or to set doctrine that’s binding on men. Roman Catholicism in particular, by its zealous opposition to abortion and contraception, helps spread AIDS and other STDs, guarantees that thousands of women will die needlessly from pregnancy, and keeps whole societies trapped in self-perpetuating cycles of poverty.

When I say that religion is immoral, I don’t mean to imply that every religious person is evil, since that isn’t true. Most religious people are good because most people are good, regardless of what beliefs they hold. But actions are never completely separable from beliefs. At best, religion diverts people’s attention from the things that really matter, getting them to spend time and energy on futile superstition. At worst, it makes them active enemies of progress. In almost every case, I criticize people because I want them to be better, and because I think they could be better if they weren’t weighed down with irrational, superstitious baggage.

People who claim that their religion is the only thing that makes them good are selling themselves short. If religion vanished from the earth tomorrow, people would still build schools and hospitals, would still run charities and care for the needy. The moral sense predates religion, it’s as old as humanity: even prehistoric tribes fed and cared for the disabled.

By the same token, if religion vanished, the world wouldn’t instantly become a utopia. There would still be prejudice, greed, racism and sexism, nationalistic and tribal clashes. But it would eliminate some of the reasons people fight and oppress each other, and some of the most irrational and intractable ones at that. In a world free of religion, moral reform would be a far easier task, since it would rely on rational persuasion rather than debating the unknowable will of God.

We’re nowhere near that world, of course. But if you believe, as I do, that it would be happier, freer, more peaceful – if you believe, as I do, that we’ll never be truly enlightened until we step out from the shadow of religious dogma, until we quench the burning flame of fanaticism – then I hope you’ll join me. Together, we can take another step toward making that better world a reality.

Image: Statue of Giordano Bruno, martyr of conscience burned at the stake by the church; via Wikimedia Commons

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • David Hart

    Hey, I recognise that statue from Ed Brayton’s blog. Now I know who it is. Thanks :-)

  • LindaJoy

    There is so much evidence for what you are arguing that it is impossible to list it all. I have found myself increasingly annoyed with people (and this includes our President unfortunately) who claim that our freedoms come from “God”. This statement is being made by people from the Christian traditions, and those traditions are based upon the biblical texts. If you read the biblical texts, the “God” depicted in them is not at all an endorser of freedom in the political or governmental sense and certainly not in the human rights sense either. That god is harsh, pro-slavery etc. and sets up a system called “salvation” which is exclusionary, freedom limiting and basically immoral. I would love to see this “freedom comes from God” statement challenged whenever it is offered.

  • Mason Puckett

    As a Christian, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate your perspective. I may disagree with some of this, but I also agree with lots of it, too. I’ve spent several years now trying to cultivate some dialogue between religion and atheism and this helps. Thanks so much for your insights.

  • Adam Lee

    Hey, I recognise that statue from Ed Brayton’s blog. Now I know who it is.

    My pleasure to be of service! And the really great part is that the statue of Bruno is in Rome, on the site of his actual execution: to quote this page, “facing the Vatican as if in defiance of all it stands for”.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for this, it is very thought provoking indeed. I appreciate authors who are able to be considerate of beliefs, without cutting down the believer. I am a nonbeliever, and am very bothered by the ease of religion in this country. People are expected to be religious, everyone is ‘praying for you’, and very few ever ‘suffer’ for their beliefs. People really believe it is all so beautiful, because they don’t care to investigate the other side, most never even read the Bible.
    I completely understand your view as for morality, who could possibly feel good worshiping such an evil god, when if he were to be human, he’d be on death row for his crimes.
    So, as hard as it can be to be an atheist in Christian USA, I would have it no other way! Thanks for this well written reminder.

  • smrnda

    Great, a new blog!

    I’m with you that religion is not just false but harmful. Now and then people have accused me of arbitrarily picking Christianity and Islam to criticize the most, but to me, it makes sense to focus on the religions with the largest influence. Though I disbelieve in pagan gods, so far pagans or paganism isn’t having much of a negative impact on society, so I don’t feel the need to say much against it I add this since people often seem to complain about atheists choosing just certain religions to be critical of, but it makes sense if the goal is to reduce harm.


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