One of the purported features of theistic religions is that—even in the absence of evidence for their extraordinary claims and even if completely fabricated—they are essentially harmless; they are innocuous. As to Christianity, it is said to have given the world the greatest moral code, along with great works of art, music, and architecture. It’s built hospitals and brought civilization to the uncivilized. What could be objectionable about a belief that, even if untrue, gives comfort in distress, emotional support in life’s disappointments, and release from the fear of death? Has faith not brought to humankind greater blessings than all the conveniences, scientific knowledge, and eradication of disease put together?
Anyway, aren’t we born with a built-in need for religious faith? Do we not seem to have a predisposition to believe in a supernatural authority? Isn’t religion the most marvelously beneficial insight of all time? Don’t humans need the threat of hell and hope for heaven in order to treat each other decently? If we didn’t have religion, how would we know not to cheat on contracts and promises? Worse, without religion, wouldn’t we deteriorate into crime and even warfare? Isn’t it obvious that religious faith has no downside? Frankly, even if religion proves to be more fancy than fact, wouldn’t it be great if other figments of our imagination were so productive!
Of course, religion does have downsides, in my opinion some pretty awful ones. Now, I know not all religions are alike, but they do share characteristics. Those that most people would have in mind all include a supernatural existence apart from the world we perceive—ghosts, goblins, angels, devils, a god or gods. The denizens of that existence have far greater power, authority, and freedom from natural constraints than we. Their understanding far exceeds ours, possibly operating outside the limitations of time itself. They have expectations of and rules for our behavior that supersede those that we might devise on our own. A belief that shares these characteristics is what I am calling a religion.
In America, while fewer and fewer people hold to these superstitions, those who believe them still outnumber those who do not. Religions are accustomed to decades of philosophic hegemony—and before the Constitution, centuries of frank theocracy. Understandably, their adherents are ready to fight to retain that influence, even resorting to altering history (the Christian nation hoax), fighting made more frantic as their control of the civil order succumbs to enlightenment.
But my point in this post is not the desperation of fading religious power, but the support granted to religion unintentionally by those who are not fooled by its delusions dressed as truth. In many cases, these are people who don’t choose to expend energy challenging religion’s claims. After all, people too busy to bother might reason, religions don’t matter and, at any rate, they’ll eventually wither away on their own. Besides, some people seem to benefit from religion; besides, at worst, religion is, well, innocuous.
Perhaps that is a reasonable conclusion. It is not mine. While I won’t dispute that religion will fade away as the centuries progress, I’m not confident that it will for a very long time. Meanwhile, religion does its damage to humanity, damage that the innocuousness policy fails to consider. Let me reiterate that I do not maintain that religion does no good at all, nor am I unaware that some liberal religions earnestly seek to combat some of religion’s worst effects.
On the larger canvas, however, it is a worthwhile consideration whether the good that various religions do (that would not have been done in their absence) is greater or less than their adverse effects. At the very least, that comparison is integral to assessing the utility of our world of superstitious, often overbearing belief systems. It requires setting aside the supposition of harmlessness long enough to note the damages religion imposes on humanity. In my next post, or shortly thereafter, I will address a few of the ways religion does clear damage to humanity.