Does religion cause harm?

After choosing to believe in God for personal reasons, I had interesting conversations with people who passionately oppose religion and faith.   Their main argument is, of course, the lack of evidence for God which I’m going to address separately.  The other argument which is hard to dismiss is that religion causes harm because it makes humans love their illusions more than their fellow humans.  They quote the passage from the Bible where Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac as an epitome of depravity and blind obedience to an immoral authority which is praised as an exemplary behavior of a believer in Abrahamic religions.  I might admit that this passage raises eyebrows at first.   I don’t think that this passage has an unequivocal interpretation, just as the other passages from the Bible.  It raises questions about authority, obedience, faith, and how we balance self-interest with what we perceive as our duty.  And, I believe, raising these questions is the purpose of this passage.

In search for people with “harmful beliefs”

The argument goes on to present the history of religious wars, inquisition, witch-burning, hindering scientific progress (Galileo, Jordano Bruno), antisemitism (ultimately leading to Holocaust), child neglect and abuse, terrorism, persecution of homosexuals, honor killings, oppression of women, condoning slavery…  Did I forget anything?  The “evidence” seems overwhelming and reading about all this stuff can get nauseating.  It seems like a very powerful argument.  But its power is not based on reason.  This argument seems powerful because it is loaded with graphical images of violence causing intense emotional response in people which leads to a huge confirmation bias.  The evidence that this violence may not have been caused by religion is simply ignored or dismissed.

The first reaction of a believer presented with these historic facts is to say that these atrocities were not committed by “true” Christians, Muslims, etc. because these religions promote peace and quiet.   That, of course is a “No True Scotsman” fallacy.  I’m not going to indulge in it here.  The second impulse is to bring examples of violence caused by secular atheistic regimes.  This is dismissed by the notion that secular violence is not caused by atheism.  OK.  Great.  Why then religious violence must be caused by religion?  “Because the very people committing these acts of violence quote their religion as the reason.”  Yes.  But isn’t it a bit naive to trust what people say to justify their actions?

So, how do we determine whether religious beliefs cause harm?  This calls to examine what constitutes a cause-effect relationship.  Research of causality can lead us into the deep jungle of metaphysics.  I would limit my humble analysis to a couple passages from David Hume.

The idea of cause and effect is derived from experience, which presenting us with certain objects constantly conjoined with each other, produces such a habit of surveying them in that relation, that we cannot without a sensible violence survey them in any other.  — David Hume “A Treatise of Human Nature”

So, cause and effect is just a special kind of connection between events.  According to Hume, it is characterized by 8 attributes:

Since therefore it is possible for all objects to become causes or effects to each other, it may be proper to fix some general rules, by which we may know when they really are so.
(1) The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.
(2) The cause must be prior to the effect.

These two items are easy to understand.  Events must be close in space and time to be called “cause” and “effect”, and we can never say that an event which happened later in time caused an event that happened earlier.

(3) There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect. It is chiefly this quality, that constitutes the relation.

(4) The same cause always produces the same effect, and the same effect never arises but from the same cause. This principle we derive from experience, and is the source of most of our philosophical reasonings. For when by any clear experiment we have discovered the causes or effects of any phaenomenon, we immediately extend our observation to every phenomenon of the same kind, without waiting for that constant repetition, from which the first idea of this relation is derived.

This is where the apparent cause-effect relationship between religion and harm  starts to fall apart.  According to (3), religious beliefs must always cause harm to be called a “cause” of the harm.  It’s fairly clear that not all believers are genocidal.  According to (4), if genocide and other atrocities are caused by religion, we would not have any examples of genocide in the absence of religious beliefs.  This, is also not the case because there are plenty of examples of atrocities caused by secular governments and atheists.  I think, this is the key point which breaks the cause-effect relationship between religion and atrocities associated with it.

(5) There is another principle, which hangs upon this, viz. that where several different objects produce the same effect, it must be by means of some quality, which we discover to be common amongst them. For as like effects imply like causes, we must always ascribe the causation to the circumstance, wherein we discover the resemblance.

This principle implies that if genocide and other atrocities are produced by both, religious and secular beliefs, there must be some common quality between these beliefs that leads to atrocities.  Religion, as a whole, is more than just belief in a deity.  It contains so many beliefs and ideas that it would take volumes to describe them.  There are ideas regarding ethics, authority, suffering, obedience, love, punishment, sin, heaven, hell.  Saying that all of them cause harm is as silly as saying that atheism caused Stalin’s repressions.  I don’t understand why people who call themselves rational would throw all religious beliefs and even all religions into one mental bucket and proceed to stereotyping all believers.  That’s an epitome of the lack of analytic reasoning ability.

(6) The following principle is founded on the same reason. The difference in the effects of two resembling objects must proceed from that particular, in which they differ. For as like causes always produce like effects, when in any instance we find our expectation to be disappointed, we must conclude that this irregularity proceeds from some difference in the causes.

(6) implies that when religion leads to atrocities in some cases and acts of selfless altruism in other cases, there must be some difference in religious beliefs between these cases.

(7) When any object encreases or diminishes with the encrease or diminution of its cause, it is to be regarded as a compounded effect, derived from the union of the several different effects, which arise from the several different parts of the cause. The absence or presence of one part of the cause is here supposed to be always attended with the absence or presence of a proportionable part of the effect. This constant conjunction sufficiently proves, that the one part is the cause of the other. We must, however, beware not to draw such a conclusion from a few experiments. A certain degree of heat gives pleasure; if you diminish that heat, the pleasure diminishes; but it does not follow, that if you augment it beyond a certain degree, the pleasure will likewise augment; for we find that it degenerates into pain.

(7) does not seem to be relevant here because I can’t think how we can measure the magnitude of atrocities or the “amount” of religious belief.

And, finally,

(8) The eighth and last rule I shall take notice of is, that an object, which exists for any time in its full perfection without any effect, is not the sole cause of that effect, but requires to be assisted by some other principle, which may forward its influence and operation. For as like effects necessarily follow from like causes, and in a contiguous time and place, their separation for a moment shews, that these causes are not compleat ones.

For example, we know that heat is needed to produce fire.  But heat alone is not sufficient.  We also need fuel and oxygen.  This implies that causes can be complex.  We might need to consider a combination of religious and non-religious beliefs to arrive at the cause of atrocities.

20 thoughts on “Does religion cause harm?

  1. Very thorough. I tend to disagree with Hume’s understanding of Causality, but that’s more of a preference of mine, than any particular argument.

    Hume’s principle of Causality never much interested me, but you’ve laid it out nicely here and used it to great effect.

    One issue though:
    I’ve never read anyone claim that religion was sufficient cause for atrocities, only that it is a necessary cause. And I can see the sense in this, it applies even if you take it the other way against the secularist. “Stalinist purges and Mao’s genocides killed more people than have ever been killed on the Earth before at one time, by a single event!”
    “Yeah, but…atheism wasn’t the sufficient cause, it was only a necessary one.” And so on so forth. It both shields and implicates religion.

    I see you hinting at that idea in the final bit of your post, do you have further thoughts about how the combination might be mixed, or would you take it on a case by case basis. (I would take it on a case by case basis myself. As no two situations are exactly the same.)

    • If religion were a necessary cause for atrocities, we would not have any atrocities committed by non-religious people. This is not the case. Neither religion, nor atheism seem to be “necessary” for committing atrocities. For sure, one cannot be an atheist and believe in God. So, claiming that atheists need religion to commit atrocities seems somewhat incoherent.

      Religion is very powerful. Of course, it can cause harm, just like fire can cause harm. But we do not call fire “harmful” and do not say that we need to get rid of it. We know in what situations fire can cause harm and we have fire safety rules in place to avoid fires. We know what behavior can cause fire to get out of control. We don’t smoke at gas stations, for example. But, for some reason, people think it’s a good idea to publish cartoons of prophet Muhammad on the Internet.

      I have some ideas of what religious beliefs or components of religious worldview seem to cause the violence. I’d like to write about it separately.

      • Can you be non-religious though? As you stated in your definition of religious beliefs it is not just belief in Deity but also a series of beliefs on ethics, authority, etc etc. It would seem like a negative assertion of belief is still a belief of some kind about a deity. And that belief goes on to inform your views of ethics, and authority, and so on and so forth. (And thus an essentially negative religion. (And I don’t mean negative as in bad. I mean negative as in the opposite of an affirmative.)

        An agnostic may be able to claim to be non-religious, but isn’t “We can’t know anything about God if there is one.” still a claim about the Deity. (It’s remarkably similar to some Church Father’s negative theology, (ie. We can say what God is not, but not what he is.) or the Asharite Theologians in the Islamic Tradition.(God is beyond our rational and moral categories, inaccessible to reason and imagination.))

        But I do like your analogy of fire. We need fire in some sense in order to not freeze to death. To be fair however, it is also a responsibility of the religious believer to know when to act and not to. So for example, publishing cartoons of Muhammad, while yes incorrect within a Muslim context, and horribly offensive, but it was published on the internet where freedom of speech rules and etc. So he wasn’t smoking at a gas station. He was smoking on a sidewalk and someone at a gas station saw him.

  2. The real problem is just what you hint at: people are forever saying, “If only we could get rid of X, then we would be happy and harmonious.” There is no utopia.

    • It seems to me that the only way to get rid of evil on this planet is to get rid of people, preferably those evil unreasonable people with “harmful beliefs”. I have noticed that, usually, it’s those people who are evil and unreasonable. It’s never us.

    • Polytheism does not make much sense to me. It’s either one or none. I’ve heard a quote somewhere that one and zero are the only two numbers that do not require an explanation. Any other number does. If we assume two deities, it poses a multitude of questions: “why not one?” “why not three?” So, I’ll stick with the choice between zero and one which seem to be equally self-sufficient, choosing one. I just like “something” better than “nothing” (it’s just a personal preference).

      So, if there is God, it must be God of any monotheistic religion. Now, why the Old Testament God is so different from Jesus? He is not. God’s name is “I AM”. He is what you see in the mirror reflecting your own mind.

      • why do you automatically assume that each religion has a different God.Myself i am a polytheist and it makes plenty of sense because i believe that the many religions don’t mean different deities but rather just different interpretations of the same and that is exactly what polytheism does it connects the dots of the same puzzle to get the full picture.
        i do love this layout of “hume’s causality theorem”

  3. I’m not a believer, and I have to admit that I went through a phase of blaming religion for a lot of ills, but it’s become increasingly evident to me that religion is a set of cultural systems. Blaming religion for X is like blaming culture for X. It may be true, but it’s also true that religion, and culture overall, causes a lot of both good and bad in the world.

    To minimize those ills, we need to function on the bad aspects of some religions and cultures, like fundamentalism.

    • That’s what I think as well. From what I see, all the “dark” sides of religion — fundamentalism, blind obedience to authority, brainwashing, etc. work with or without religion. It’s important to understand religion and learn to use its practices without causing harm. Getting rid of religion will not solve anything.

  4. I invite you to watch this interesting documentary:

    Religion might have very positives aspects, but have you ever think of a world without it?
    Where people believe in actual scientific facts and not in mystical books, that states some rules both moral and unmoral.
    The bible shows us a pernicious, egocentric god that punishes every single person that doesn’t believe in him or doesn’t adulate him. Why will a god be so egocentric and violent if he is omnipotent?

    It is clear that religion has caused many wars, fanaticism and conflict.
    Religion forces many people to have a closed mind and think the way religion wants you to think. For many years, the Catholic church has prohibited abortion, the use of preservatives and many other things. Abortion may be a very controversial topic, but the use of preservatives is something almost necessary for many reasons. First of all, it prevents the spread of diseases. Also, it avoids unwanted children that cannot be raised properly and will eventually, die of hunger, a disease or will not get education and possibly start a criminal life, while the church is getting more money every day and has uncountable amount of wealth that could help solve world real world problems, instead of spending it in gold figures, statues and churches that adulates a mystical creature. It will tell you what is wrong and what is good, people should have their own way of thinking and should be able to understand what is good and wrong without religion.

    I also invite you to read the book by Richard Dawkins called The God Delusion, where he clearly shows the negative side of religion, why it is unnecessary, and how we could have a better world without it. He supports everyone of his arguments with clear scientific proof.

    • Perhaps, you have not read this post in full.

      The bible shows us a pernicious, egocentric god that punishes every single person that doesn’t believe in him or doesn’t adulate him. Why will a god be so egocentric and violent if he is omnipotent?

      Isn’t this a fairly accurate description of humanity? It seems to me that how people see God is often how they see themselves and other people.

      It is clear that religion has caused many wars, fanaticism and conflict.

      Did religion cause the conflict and unrest in your and my country that is going on right now. If religion causes conflict (despite the teachings of forgiveness and non-violence), then how come that there is conflict that is not caused by religion? Think about it. If you want to check if A is the cause of B and you have B in the absence of A, doesn’t it prove that A is not the cause of B? And if A1 and A2 seem to cause B, according to Hume, it must be something that A1 and A2 have in common.

      Look at the riches of the recent Ukrainian president Yanukovych. What does this have to do with religion?

      • I clearly stated that religion caused many conflicts, not all of them. I agree with you when you say that there are many wars and problems that have nothing to do with religion, they are just caused by a need of power, corruption and ignorance. I am just saying that we don’t need religion to have a benevolent way of thinking.

        “In India, during the partition more than 1 million people where massacred by religious riots between Hindus and Muslims (15 million where forced to leave their homes). At the end, the only difference between these people was their religion. Salman Rushdie felt that he needed to write an article called “Religion, as ever, is the poison in India´s blood”.

        There is something society is doing wrong about religion: they describe their children as catholic, protestant, ect, from a very early age, which certainly is very soon, so their minds can´t really understand what they think about religion.

        School segregation: kids are educated since an early age surrounded by an specific religious group and separated from other kids with other religions. Its not an exaggeration to state that Northern Ireland problems would´ve disappear if school segregation would´ve been abolished.

        Taboos about mix marriage (different religions): This increases tensions and rivalries and revenge between different groups. If mix marriage would´ve been permitted and accepted, these tensions would naturally decrease.

        In a socialogical study by Professor George Tamarin, more than a thousand Israeli choolchildren aged eight to fourteen were given this account of the battle of Jericho, from the book of Joshua:
        Joshua said to the people, “Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction… But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.”

        Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword… And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

        The children were asked a simple moral question:
        “Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly?” The children could choose between:
        • A. Total approval
        • B. Partial Approval
        • C. Total disapproval
        The results came back polarized: 66% gave “total approval”, 26% “total disapproval” and 8% “partial approval”.
        Typical answers from the “Total approval” group:
        “In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.”
        “In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.”
        “Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.”
        The justifications were all based on religion. Even those who gave “total disapproval” did not do so in the way one might expect, as these samples show:
        “I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.”
        Two others who totally disapproved did so because Joshua destroyed everything, including animals and property, instead of keeping some as spoil for the Israelites:
        “I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.”
        “I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.”
        What made Tamarin’s experiment truly enlightening was a control group he ran. He gave a different set of children the same text quoted above, but with “Joshua” replaced with “General Lin” and “Israel” replaced with “A Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago”.
        Suffice to say the results were drastically the opposite now: only 7% approved of “General Lin”, while 75% disapproved.
        The above is extracted from a text in a book by Richard Dawkins. The professor who conducted the study was subsequently fired.
        Similar passages can be found in Numbers, where God orders vengeance on the Midianites:
        The LORD said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”
        So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites and to carry out the LORD’s vengeance on them.Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.” So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel. Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling.
        They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man.Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.
        Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.
        “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

        Maybe religion is not the cause of all of our problems, but is the cause of many.

        • Thanks for the very detailed reply. I believe, religion determines personal, cultural, and national identity. Anything that you identify yourself with – your family, your home town, school, ethnic group, race, favorite sports team, would lead to similar tensions and, perhaps, the same violence. I believe that what leads to violence is not religion itself, but the division of people into “I” and “you”, “us” and “them”. And it’s inevitable. Religion is a manifestation of such division (not the only one) and it is not the root cause. The root cause is fundamental to our species – self-awareness. It is the basis of human intellect, ability to form organized social groups, and the basis for morality. I think, religion is a mere consequence of this ability to be aware of ourselves – to recognize ourselves in the mirror, to empathize with other people, to project our “self” onto other people, and even onto nature and the universe.

          Many religions teach “selflessness” – altruism and the abandonment of ego. But in many cases, these teachings have the opposite effect – they enhance the sense of personal identity and the sense that “others” do not belong to it. It may lead to the sense of exclusivity as in case of Israelites who considered themselves “the chosen people”. The same mentality is behind the bumper stickers “God bless America”.

          Christianity teaches that all people are sinners, “do not judge”, “forgive”, etc. But religion can also lead to the sense of self-righteousness – an illusion that “my beliefs are right” (because they are MY beliefs).

          This does not necessarily have anything to do with religion. Americans, for some odd reason, believe that democratic form of government is the best form of government people can have. This belief also leads to much grief and violence.

          I’d like to expand on the idea of identity in a different post.

  5. I’m going to throw a concept of my own invention at you- inheritance pride.

    An inheritance pride is a piece of identity that people get from birth that functions to set them apart. Being subject to gravity, therefore, is not inheritance pride because although our relationship with gravity is inherited, it is not exclusive. Likewise, “lawyer” is not an inheritance pride because, although it’s an exclusive term, it is earned and therefore not an accident of birth.

    The big three inheritance prides are, in my observation, patriotism, racial pride and nativist religion (religiousity among those who’ve never converted).

    Now, can you think of any large scale atrocities that weren’t built on some combination of those three factors?

    If not, would inheritance pride qualify for cause status?

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