People who read this blog often find it difficult to decide where to put me on the atheism spectrum. I probably sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth sometimes. One second I’m reaching across the religious aisle seeking to find common ground with natural allies and the next I’m critiquing their core beliefs.
Part of my ambivalence stems from the variability of religion itself. Religion is an exceedingly subjective enterprise, and as such it is difficult to accurately portray it without misrepresenting some subculture contained therein. The moment I’ve accurately described seven variations, three more step forward to tell me I got it wrong.
This is part of why I can’t give a simple answer to the question: How do you feel about religion? Which one do you mean? They’re not all the same. Even within one faith tradition there are so many variations that it’s not a simple question. I see some aspects of religious belief as fairly benign. If it truly does no harm, then I don’t personally feel a need to say anything against it.
However, I see many features of religion as harmful both to the people who hold to them and to the people upon whom they inflict their beliefs. Rather than calling out names, I’d prefer to describe those traits which mark harmful expressions of religion and I’ll leave it to you to figure out which groups these include. For an added bonus, be sure to check out the video at the bottom on this very topic by Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist.
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. Sometimes they hedge their bets by combining prayer with action, which is better than the alternative, but in the end they will almost always credit the prayer for any positive outcomes.
I suppose as long as it doesn’t discourage future action, it’s not so bad. But oftentimes it does just that—people are encouraged to “wait on God,” which in practice means to withhold pertinent action or decision-making in order to receive direction “from on high.” Who knows how many irreplaceable moments have come and gone without necessary action because someone was waiting on God to do something?
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 wants, then at some level that means whatever happens is “God’s will.” Of course this is a raging debate among believers who can’t agree on which events God actively causes and which ones he passively allows.
Ultimately this distinction is arbitrary because an all-powerful deity could step in to change what’s happening if only he chose to intervene. When this intervention doesn’t come, it means he chose not to change what was happening. 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 your outlook for the future. If you believe that someone invisible guides everything from personal experiences to world events, that has to impact your judgment. You’ll change how you think and act based on your belief that someone is going to make something happen.
3) If it teaches you to 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 interprets as God talking to him. This is terribly 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’ve been taught that “there are no coincidences.”
Faith also can teach you to put too much trust in the direction of a spiritual authority figure claiming that “God told me what you need to do.” Even those who poke fun at this kind of talk will then turn around and do the same things themselves but then describe it with more subtle language. They too 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.
4) If it discourages critical thinking skills. This too is a silent killer. It works in ways that are difficult to observe because it operates beneath the surface. Like 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 damper 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. In time, you quit expecting them to.
Read: “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker“
This makes you easy to dupe, even while considering yourself very smart. Frequent assurances that we’re not supposed to understand things kills our natural curiosity and numbs the very hunger for knowledge which has defined the human race. If the last two years have taught us nothing, they’ve shown us how docile evangelicals have become, faithfully supporting a political party claiming “biblical values” no matter how immoral the leader. Their inconsistency alarm has been silenced so many times that it no longer even catches their attention.
5) If it teaches you to reject science. 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’ll have a hard time finding even 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 try to avoid the subject altogether.” If I inquire further, I find out 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 the most fundamental organizing principle in all of the 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 either to avoid the topic or else 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, effective sex education methods, 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 won’t 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 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. How much evangelical energy is spent 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.
You don’t think women should work outside the home? And yet you live in the 21st century? I guarantee that traces back to your religion. Do you think people 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? You are allowing your own religious intolerance to override the pluralism that’s 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 distrust yourself and view yourself as essentially broken, weak, or unable to think for yourself. Preachers often compared their audience to sheep, taking great pains to stress the stupidity of sheep and their great need to be led by someone else. If that doesn’t 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.
Messages like this should make you angry. They are teaching 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?
Ask sometime to see the budget breakdown of a typical suburban church. If they’re willing to share those numbers even with their own members, 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 goes to pay for the kinds of things 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). Religion is a lucrative industry, but it does relatively little to help those who need assistance the most (thankfully there are exceptions, but they remain exceptions).
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 that other list it parallels what I’ve discussed today.
Notice that I didn’t even cover the more egregious problems of fundamentalist religion. I could have talked about genital mutilation or suicide cults or the attack on New York and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, but those topics have already been covered thoroughly by others. I’m talking about the culture in which I grew up, and in which I still partially live. What I’ve listed here represents what that I see most often around me.
If you’re a person of faith and you can honestly say that you do not identify with any of the things I’ve listed, then feel free to 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, but they may listen to you.
The last time I shared these points, Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist turned this list into a video. Check it out!
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