Does religion do more harm than good?

I can appreciate the reasons why some find it difficult to believe what I believe, or even to believe in God at all. Throughout this blog, I’ve engaged the big questions around this issue, but in this post I am concerned with a secondary topic. Whether my religion, or anyone’s religion, does more harm than good is a different question from whether it is true or false, but it is important in its own right. I suppose that if one had nothing better to do, one might take steps to advocate for a religious message just because one believed it to be true or produce good in the world. Similarly, one might relieve boredom by arguing against religion simply because one believed it to be false or harmful. But it seems that to have any real passion in discussing religion, most people have to believe either that it is true and good, or false and harmful.

I share my Christian faith with anyone willing to listen, for reasons explained in the previous post. However, in particular situations, I think it does more harm than good to provoke a discussion about faith, and in these cases I keep my views to myself, even though I believe them to be true. For example, if the social setting is inappropriate, an attempt to share the Gospel would likely backfire. Furthermore, if someone I encounter has a strong belief in God, a character suggesting that such belief is bearing good fruit, and a religious system within which it is nurtured, I would be very hesitant to discuss areas where I might disagree with that person’s beliefs, especially if it would involve tearing down what they already have. For example, I would hesitate to try to convert a devout and peaceful Muslim, because any effort to do so would begin by trying to tear down claims about Muhammad, in order to build back up claims about Jesus (some of which Muslims already accept). The process of tearing down the religious system that nurtured a person’s faith in God risks destroying that person’s faith altogether; if I am unsuccessful in building back up belief on my own terms, I leave that person’s life worse off than I found it. Similarly, I will acknowledge my doubts (which do exist) where it is helpful to show intellectual honesty and build rapport, as a means to strengthening one whose faith is wavering or introducing faith to someone who doesn’t have it.  But I have no interest in introducing doubt where it does not already exist; Jesus spoke vividly against this. Instead, I focus my efforts on trying to move those with no faith at all closer to God, and those with only a generic belief in God closer to Jesus.

Similarly, I would conjecture that in many cases, the well-meaning atheist or agnostic who speaks up on matters of faith believes not only that they are right but also that religion does more harm than good, either for the person they are speaking to or for society at large. (Others, I suppose, attack people’s faith simply for a sick sort of amusement; this post is not concerned with those.) Furthermore, a belief that religion does more harm than good might be taken by some as a suggestive evidence that it is false.  It is important, therefore, to consider whether religion does more harm than good.

To answer this question, one must first define what is meant by religion.  In one sense of the word, a religion is a set of beliefs held by an individual, leading them to make certain choices in life; for purposes of this post, let’s call this personal religion. In another sense of the word, a religion is an institution, consisting of houses of worship, congregations, leaders, schools, texts, traditions, and the like; let’s call this organized religion. In the case of Christianity, personal religion includes a core belief in the divinity of Christ (expressed in something like the Apostles’ Creed) and the life choices that are supposed to flow from it are neatly summed up by Jesus (see Matthew 22:37-40) in two commandments, love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The letter of James illustrates this kind of religion illustrated a bit more specifically:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

— James 1:27

Whether the personal practice of the Christian religion is good for a particular individual practicing it is debatable. If Christ’s claims are true (or even, more broadly, if God is anything similar to what Christ modeled), then of course it is good for a person to conform to that. If not, it is less clear. Certainly, faith can provide comfort. A universe with no God, populated by people with no souls, is a bleak picture indeed. Yet on the other hand, the Christian faith is a challenging one, full of the tension between God’s ways and the ways of the world, calling the believer to a difficult path of sacrifice and transformation. C.S. Lewis remarks:

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.  I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy.  I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity. I am certain there must be a patent American article on the market which will suit you far better, but I can’t give my advice on it.

— from God in the Dock, cited here

For society as a whole, however, it is difficult to argue against the benefits of personal religion. In the aggregate, the impact on happiness of the benefits of spiritual comfort vs. the difficult aspects of faith alluded to above seems to be a net positive one, with some qualifications, according to studies described here. The idea that if we all loved one another the world would be a happier place is certainly in accord with common sense, and it also seems sensible that one who believes that such love is in harmony with the ultimate power that governs the universe is more likely, all other things equal, to live that way.

Let’s turn to organized religion. It has been accused of many ills: starting wars, nurturing an anti-scientific mindset, fostering an us-vs-them mentality, wasting charitable resources on elaborate buildings and garments, depriving governments of tax revenue, repressing sexuality, subjecting independent thinkers to the horrors of Inquisitions, and so on. There is of course some truth to these claims, and one can think of numerous examples of cases where religion appears to have inspired evils in the world. However, I would make four points in response to this, with regards to the Christian religion specifically.

First, I would argue that these evils do not result from following the teachings of Christ. It’s hard to argue that Christ’s own life of compassionate ministry, and instructions like “turn the other cheek” and “put away your sword” provide reasonable fodder for provoking wars. To start a holy war in Christ’s name requires that one overlook the main thrust of His life and teaching and turn instead to obscure interpretations or obscure passages, or else fall back on certain Old Testament themes, particularly those that Christ rebukes in His own teaching. As for Christianity as an anti-scientific force, I have argued here and here that there is no bias against, or incompatibility with, science inherent in Christianity.  That there is a correlation at the present time between faith and anti-scientific thinking is not the fault of anything Christ taught. Similarly, the us-vs-them mentality that one finds intertwined with some people’s religious views does not really model Christ’s ministry, which repeatedly involved love breaking through taboos and boundaries, with regards to women, Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, etc. As for the elaborate buildings being a waste of resources, that is a grey area. Perhaps the Christ who was homeless throughout His ministry considers gaudy architectural monuments to Him to be in poor taste, but on the other hand if such things are constructed and admired in the right spirit, it might be wrong to look at them with a coldly practical eye.  As for sexuality, this is discussed at length in other posts, here and here. Finally, with regards to Inquisitions and such, we don’t find Christ or the Apostles abusing non-believers; we do, however, find them praying for them.

Second, not only did Christ not inspire the evils of organized religion, but He also repeatedly came in conflict with them. Jesus favored the poor and outcast with warmth and compassion, but He had harsh words for one group in particular: the leaders of the organized religion of the day. While a lot of what Jesus taught undermined several Old Testament religious concepts (as I’ve explored here and here), His main objection to first-century Judaism wasn’t its core ideals but its institutional leadership. The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the rich and powerful big-shot religious leaders of the day, are on the receiving end of an outburst of righteous anger from Jesus, recorded in Matthew 23. This group eventually took its revenge, making Jesus a prominent victim of an unholy alliance between church and state, certainly not a figure who ought to inspire such a thing.

Third, it is important to recognize that many of the evils that organized religion has been accused of inspiring have always existed in abundance both in non-Christian religions and non-religious settings as well. They flow from the human heart, with religion often acting as public pretext (for the insincere), or perhaps a trigger in the mentally disturbed. A large majority of the deadliest wars in history were not fought over religion, and even those with strong religious themes usually had other motives at work. Homosexuals have been persecuted in a wide variety of societies, including most of the Muslim world and officially atheist regimes Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’s China.  The us-vs-them mentality pops up everywhere from ethnicity to nationality to political acrimony to soccer hooliganism. If each man and women were just a lump of meat, ultimately acting out a genetic script (to paraphrase the prevailing atheistic paradigm), the wars and bigotries of humanity would reflect aspects of our nature that served some purpose in the evolution of the species, and there would be no real grounds to judge any of it morally.  Religion, with its claims of the value of the soul, the brotherhood of man, the primacy of love, is not the problem but the solution.

Finally, I would argue that even if organized religion at the institutional level were responsible for a significant amount of harm, the good that it does in fostering religion at the personal level (by spreading the Gospel and providing a framework for community among believers) would likely outweigh that harm by a wide margin. This is obviously a judgment call, and of course not everyone will agree on this. My hope is simply that the points above will give readers pause to consider factors that are often overlooked.  It should also be kept in mind that even if one were to conclude that organized religion is harmful overall, one can still have a relationship with God just by praying to Him. Or better yet, find a good local church that isn’t starting any wars or hating anyone; it’s easier than you might think. The pastor at my church is fond of reaching out to those who’ve been disillusioned by organized religion, pointing out that folks in our church are “not very organized”.

1 thought on “Does religion do more harm than good?”

  1. Some comfort derived from understanding more of the difference(s) between what some organized religions justify in their Role as having the answer to what is right and wrong.

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