Nonbelievers exhibit a wide array of reactions to the presence and influence of religion in public life ranging from cool indifference or mild disdain to highly vocal disgust and vitriolic public protest. Frans de Waal has reasonably hypothesized that each person’s background probably plays a major role in determining the strength of his feelings toward the subject. “Possibly, the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces…my thesis [is] that activist atheism reflects trauma. The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones.” Makes sense to me. I’ve noticed that those with the least patience for charitable dialogue with religious folks often come from the most controlling, most abusive religious contexts. They have good reason to be angry, and they feel a strong internal motivation to combat religion because they’ve seen its dark side.
A person’s natural temperament probably plays a major role in this as well. Some people are just cranky by nature and are disinclined to spend much time trying to see things from another person’s perspective, particularly if that perspective seems intellectually inferior. I’ve noticed that those who didn’t grow up in a strongly religious setting have the hardest time of all trying to identify with the religious mind because they’ve never spent any significant time looking at life through that lens themselves. Conversely, those like me who have spent the majority of their lives inhabiting that world often find it much easier to sympathize with the mind of faith, even if they’ve grown more and more averse to its torturous rationalizations with each passing year. Whichever camp you fall into, you will not get much support from me if your primary mode of interaction with the religious is to name-call, insult, and personally belittle them for believing what they were raised to believe. You can disagree with them without acting like a turd. In fact, the way I see it, when you use personal attacks it tells me you don’t have anything better to offer. If ad hominem is the best you’ve got, I can be forgiven for dismissing you without further thought (and so can everyone else). You’re not helping anyone.
I must also interject here as I often do that there are forms of religion which are far less guilty of the trespasses I will enumerate below. The tenets of liberal Christianity, for example, focus on the same real-world needs which secular humanists seek to ameliorate such as poverty, social oppression, ignorance, hunger, famine, and disease. They do not discourage scientific discovery or innovation, nor do they labor to hinder (or sometimes reverse) social progress the way that some folks seem to want to do today. If Maggie, the protagonist from the story in my last post, had been brought up in a more liberal tradition, of if at least her husband had been from that camp, she would likely still be welcome in her own home today. Unfortunately for her, neither was the case and so her family has become a casualty of the ever-escalating culture wars which virtually dominate American life today.
I want to talk more about what ideological forces created such an insurmountable wedge between Josh and Maggie (please stop now and read their story if you haven’t already), so as you keep reading I will address those places where the list touches on something relevant to their story. If you happen to be a “believer” yourself, please ask yourself as you as you go through this list: “Is there any chance my beliefs actually cause harm for myself or for others?” The extent to which different belief systems do so will vary, but one thing their adherents all have in common is that none of them thinks his or her particular beliefs are guilty of these things. If they did, they would likely be already on their way out of their religion as we speak. Perhaps you are one of those. If you are not, I imagine you’ll find reasons to disagree with each of the points. The only way to know is to read on:
Your Religion May Be Harmful…
1) If it inspires inactivity when action is what is needed. This is one of religion’s “silent killers” because you don’t immediately see the harm that it does. There’s no telling how many opportune moments pass by because people decided to “wait on God” for something which they should have just taken care of themselves. In Maggie’s situation, this problem surfaced at least twice. First, Josh spent a great deal of time in prayer asking God to make Maggie believe again. Not only was this prayer not “answered,” it also reinforced Josh’s belief that it was Maggie—and Maggie alone—who needed to change. During their year of weekly counseling, a number of issues came up as they always do during intensive marital therapy. But instead of facing those issues head-on and doing the hard work of compromise (without which no marriage can truly be healthy), Josh’s belief system encouraged him to see Maggie as the broken one who needed fixing. Ideally, the therapist in this situation should step in and mediate between the two opposite extremes; but in Maggie’s case, the therapist shared views which were identical to Josh’s. It was two against one. And in the ideological world of evangelicalism, compromise is a bad word anyway. Tough luck for Maggie. The second way this surfaced came when Josh had an opportunity to seek full-time employment in order to alleviate Maggie’s exhausting work schedule. Instead of earnestly hunting for a job, he applied for only one dream position and then prayed and waited. When the prayer was denied, he took that as “God’s will” and moved on. Maggie was left to take up the financial slack all by herself because Josh had trusted that God would “do something” and he didn’t.
2) If it teaches you to accept things as they are when they should be changed. If you believe in a supreme being who is capable of doing whatever he chooses to do, then at some level that means that whatever happens is “God’s will.” Now, this continues to be a raging debate among believers who cannot agree on which events God actively causes and which ones he passively allows. But in the end this distinction is arbitrary. An all-powerful deity could step in to change something if he a) existed and b) chose to intervene. When this intervention doesn’t come, it means one of those two things did not happen. So the believer is left with the nonsensical conclusion that whatever happened was somehow according to divine plan, no matter how it unfolded. This placating belief also affects one’s outlook for the future. If you believe that someone or something invisible is at work guiding everything from personal experiences to world events, at some level that has to affect your judgment. You will change both what you do and how you think because of your belief that someone is going to magically make something happen. Josh was taught to believe that once people are “saved” they cannot ever get “unsaved.” This gave him a false hope (which could be a separate point on my list) about his wife’s trajectory, and it made him much slower to accept her for who she was. He spent a good deal of mental and emotional energy anticipating one thing when the opposite made far more sense under the circumstances. Both he and their therapist spent far too much time and energy looking to change Maggie back instead of learning to relate to her as she now was.
3) If it conditions you to overly rely on subjective sources of decision-making. Even the Bible teaches that “in the abundance of counselors there is safety.” But important life decisions are still too often made based on a nebulous “feeling” which the believer supposes indicates that God is talking to him. This is exceedingly subjective and dangerous. It teaches you to look either inwardly to your own random thought processes or outwardly for “signs” which in reality are completely of your own making. The human mind is brilliant when it comes to fabricating meaning out of random things (consider just twenty minutes of nighttime dreaming if you don’t believe me). Too often faith leads people to put more stock in something random or coincidental because they have been taught that “there are no coincidences.” Similarly, they can sometimes put too much trust in the direction of a perceived spiritual authority figure or even a random acquaintance who persuasively claims that “God told me what you need to do.” Even those who poke fun at this sensationalist kind of talk will turn around and do the same things themselves but then describe it with more subtle language. They will uncritically follow the leadership of their own perceived authorities; the only difference is that they don’t admit out loud how willing they are to defer judgment to another person. Because Josh looked to his minister for what to do in his marriage, at times he even went against what felt natural in his relations with his wife because he trusted that God had put this man in their lives to give them direction. It may very well be that if Josh had only been willing to think for himself, the love which he and Maggie had for each other may have guided them through their crisis.
4) If it discourages critical thinking skills. I could go on about this for days. Like the inactivity inspired by so much praying for and waiting on divine intervention, this characteristic of faith is another silent killer. It works in ways that are very difficult to observe because it operates beneath the surface in a highly diffuse way. Just as an autoimmune disorder quietly affects seemingly unrelated systems and biological functions, leaving the body vulnerable to ailments of many kinds, so faith often acts like a dampener on a person’s critical thinking skills. You can only be told so many times of the inherent irrationality of “the things of the spirit” before you begin to believe that some of the most important things in life aren’t even supposed to make sense, so you quit expecting them to. If you get enough of this, you’ll eventually become very easy to dupe, even while considering yourself very smart. Frequent assurances that we’re not supposed to understand some things kills our natural curiosity and numbs the very hunger for knowledge which has defined the human race (this happens most among the subcultures trying the hardest to be “biblical”). For example, some who make their home in evangelical churches become so docile and gullible that they will faithfully support a political party which claims to champion “biblical values” but favors the rich over the poor and works tirelessly to eliminate the social programs on which the impoverished and the elderly depend. Their inconsistency alarm has been silenced so many times that it no longer even catches their attention. In many ways this may be the most deleterious of all negative effects of religion because it disables the one thing that could shine a revealing light on all these other problems I am listing: Our critical thinking skills.
5) If it teaches you to distrust science. Granted, some forms of religion don’t do this and thankfully there are growing numbers of believers who are coming around to accepting basic scientific principles like common ancestry and climate change. But where I live you will have a hard time even finding a science teacher who teaches either one of those things. I’ve taught at several public schools over the years and I often ask them how they address the subject of evolution. They usually answer, “I don’t; I try to avoid the subject altogether.” If I inquire further, I typically find that their church background taught them it is a “lie from the pit of Hell.” But these are biology teachers in public schools and they don’t accept what Bill Nye calls “the most fundamental idea in all of life science.” How is that possible? It’s possible because churches all over the country so strongly disapprove of the idea that they openly resist its propagation, exerting enormous pressure on school systems to either avoid the topic or give equal time to their religion in the (government sponsored) classroom. This same distrust of science leads them to fight environmental protection, global warming initiatives, space exploration, and even stem cell research. Their resistance to the latter may very well be the only thing keeping us from reversing spinal injuries and finding cures for hundreds of diseases.
6) If its other-worldly promises distract you from finding solutions to this-world problems. You will not seek to preserve our ecosystem if you believe a divine judge is going to destroy the place himself in retributive anger. You will not devote sufficient resources to alleviating the physical suffering of people around the world if you believe that saving their souls is more important than saving their bodies. You will not prioritize finding a cure for diseases which you believe were sent by God as a punishment for unacceptable “lifestyle choices.” You will not seek prompt medical attention if you have been taught that prayer can work as well as medical treatment. And you will be far less likely to work to equalize social and economic disparities if you believe people “shouldn’t be so concerned about things of this world.” As with point #2 above, if your religion tells you that people should just learn to accept their lot in life “because God,” then you are likely standing in the way of human progress. Which leads me to the next point. Your religion may be harmful…
7) If it leads you to actively discriminate against others because of their gender, their sexual orientation, or their beliefs. I’ve written about this before. There is something fundamentally flawed about trying to squeeze 21st-century people into a 1st-century mold. Your religion may be harmful if you feel compelled to force everyone everywhere from every era into an ancient near eastern social template. Do you think women shouldn’t work outside the home? And you live in the 21st century? That almost certainly traces back to your religion. Do you think people who are attracted to the same sex shouldn’t be legally allowed to marry? I’ll bet money that’s because of your religion. Do you believe that non-Christians shouldn’t be trusted with positions of civic authority or legal power? Either your name is S.E. Cupp or else you are allowing religious intolerance to override any appreciation for the kind of pluralism which lies at the heart of the U.S. Constitution. I find it ironic whenever churches host a patriotic celebration as if their religious devotion didn’t so often put them in direct opposition to the American tolerance for social and religious differences. The very first of the Ten Commandments demands unrivaled allegiance to Yahweh while the Bill of Rights begins by outlawing the favoring of one religion over another. Being an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian in America presents some fascinating instances of cognitive dissonance.
8) If it teaches you to fundamentally distrust yourself and to view yourself as essentially broken, weak, or unable to think for yourself. Not too long ago I caught a sermon in which the preacher compared everyone to sheep. As many preachers often to, he took great pains to stress the stupidity of sheep, and their great need to be led by someone else. This, he argued, is a good way to think about ourselves. If reading that does not make something boil inside you then you have become as desensitized to that kind of talk as I was when I was still “in church.” But messages like that should make you angry. This compulsion to give such a low self-image to people is despicable, and it should be seen for what it is. It teaches people to see themselves as unable to determine their own steps, unable to think and to dream and to pursue goals of their own choosing. It cuts at the heart of what it means to be an intelligent being, and as with the other points I have made, this holds us back as a species from becoming what we could be.
9) If it sucks a significant amount of time or money from your life. How many hours a week does religious devotion steal away from people who are already too busy to take care of themselves and their families? How much money has been given out of almost empty pockets in order to sustain the expensive machinery of religious tradition? If you’ll simply ask to see the budget breakdown of a typical suburban church you will likely find that an infinitessimally small percentage of the money that you give goes towards helping the kinds of people on whom Jesus reportedly focused his followers’ attention. The bulk of those funds goes to things related to maintaining the church property and to the salaries of the church staff. If it is a very large church like the one I grew up in ($10M annual budget), there will also be promotional costs for posters, brochures, video production, sound and lighting equipment, large musical productions, and more bells and whistles than I care to enumerate. Some of their money will go to pay for “missions,” but if you follow that money as well, you will see that it similarly goes to pay for the kinds of things which I’ve already listed. This money is collected tax-free, and it has been estimated that nearly $71B is lost every year in America alone because of that exemption ($21B just from uncollected property taxes). It turns out that religion is a lucrative industry, and it does relatively little to help those who need assistance the most.
I’ve listed before what benefits I found I received from becoming an atheist, and while your experience may not match mine exactly, that list came from an honest reflection on how it impacted me. Now that I’ve reached the end of today’s list, I see that if you take the opposite of each item from the previous list it will parallel much of what I’ve discussed today. I’m sure many could add items to both of these lists, so feel free to do so in the comments. I didn’t even cover the more egregious problems which come from the more extreme elements of fundamentalist religion. I could have talked about genital mutilation or suicide cults or the attack on New York City and Washington on September 11, 2001, but those topics have already been covered thoroughly by others. I speak of the culture in which I grew up, and in which I still partially live. What I have listed represents the things that I see most often around me. If you are a person of faith and you can honestly say that you do not identify with any of the things I’ve listed, then please disregard what has been said here. But first, would you please do us all a favor and speak to the rest of the church on our behalf? They will not listen to me; they need to hear this from you.
UPDATE: Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist turned this list into a video. Check it out!