Monday, April 2, 2012

Does religion do more harm than good?

So, earlier I wrote a response to an article called "Myth 2: Religion Does More Harm Than Good," sparked by an exchange on Facebook. In that response, I simply went through the article and pointed out the good and bad parts. I didn't actually address the question "Does religion do more harm than good?" That's what I aim to do now. Of course, there have been entire books written on this subject ("God is Not Great," by Christopher Hitchens, for example), so it's unlikely that I would be able to properly address this question in a single blog post. It should also be noted that it's unlikely I can do this without treading ground already walked by others, but I'll do what I can in giving a (relatively) brief answer.

Before I begin, it would be helpful if I define how I'm using religion. This may seem an obvious thing, but the definition has been debated before. So, the definition I'm using is as follows: religion is  a belief in supernatural forces and/or entities that have an effect on the natural world. It's a belief in entities or forces that are undetectable by any natural means (invisible, inaudible, etc). And yes, I'm blatantly stealing that definition from the one Greta Christina uses in her talk "Why Are You Atheists So Angry?" It's useful, and tends to be how we see religion playing out in the real world, rather than in sociological circles (not that sociological definitions are necessarily bad, but the ones I've seen are so broad you could toss in love of a sports team and have it match).

So let's start with a look back at a few things in the "Myth 2" article. Father Williams had this to say:
Hitchens and company claim to follow the Gospel principle of judging a tree by its fruits, but as for the tree of religion, they consider only the rotten fruits, never the good ones. The innumerable saints, geniuses and benefactors nourished by the Christian faith simply count for nothing. 
In making their case, Hitchens and company refrain from considering the almost countless ways that Christianity has benefited the world as we know it today. 
What of the hospitals? What of the orders of nuns established to care for the dying or educate young girls? What of the soup kitchens and orphanages? What of the preservation of classical culture? What of the artistic and literary treasures?
Let's start with hospitals. I really don't need to enumerate the good that hospitals have done, but I'll list a few points anyway: setting broken bones, treating cancer, helping heart attack victims, and oh yea, saving lives. Lots and lots of lives. This is the case for secular as well as religious hospitals. This is unequivocally a good thing. However, in December of 2010, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix stripped a hospital, St. Joseph's, of it's Catholic affiliation because the hospital performed an abortion for the purpose of saving a woman's life. From the letter the Bishop sent to the hospital administration:
I now ask that CHW agree to the following requirements by Friday, December 17, 2010. Only if all of these items are agreed to, will I postpone any action against CHW and St. Joseph’s Hospital. Specifically, I require the following in order for me to postpone any further canonical action directed against St. Joseph’s Hospital: 
1. CHW must acknowledge in writing that the medical procedure that resulted in the abortion at St. Josephs’ hospital was a violation of ERD 47, and so will never occur again at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
The abortion in question was performed to save a woman's life when she developed severe symptoms of pulmonary hypertension. She was dying, and without the abortion, she would die. Plain, and simple. There was no saving both. Yet, the "good" Bishop is requiring a promise that it would never happen again, even if it was the only way to save the woman's life. (I recall seeing an article written by a woman who went through a circumstance that sounded just like this, including the five kids, Catholic hospital, life threatening pregnancy, and reluctance on the hospital's part to have the abortion performed, but have been unable to find it. It might have been the same woman, but have been unable to find it. Anyone have a link to it?)

That Bishop uses his religious views to claim authority to let a woman die. He apparently wants all the Catholic hospitals to follow his authority in this matter (his letter is full of his claims to authority). That's a whole lot of harm, right there.

But there are other goods that religion does. For example, orders of nuns who take care of the dying and educate young girls. Mother Teresa is perhaps the most famous for taking care of the dying. She founded the Missionaries of Charity to care for the poor and sick, believing that she was following a calling placed on her by God. Here's a quote from Mother Teresa, which was given in response to a question at a 1981 press conference:
"I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."
That passion for suffering was on display in her 'hospices.' She did not provide painkiller, even in the worst cases. She felt that suffering was a way to be closer to Jesus. In other words, her religious views provided a very direct harm to people.

Moving on. In 2004, The Salvation Army threatened to close all of their soup kitchens in New York City if the city enacted legislation that would've required them and other businesses that deal with the government to provide benefits to the partners of gay employees. That's thousands of homeless who would've been affected. According to one Army official, "You cannot change theological views. Those are so deeply embedded, they form the root of the faith itself." The Salvation Army thinks gay sex is wrong, and was willing to cause harm to the homeless as a result.

I have very little to say about the preservation of classical treasures, or of the artistic value of religiously inspired pieces. Those things are important, although it's an open question if they're more important than the other, very real harms I've mentioned. I would however note that for the longest time, the patrons of artists were religious (and truthfully, probably the artists themselves), so it's hardly surprising.
But all I've really done so far is list some examples of harm caused by religion, using Father Thomas Williams's questions as a jumping off point. I have not yet shown clear reason to think religion does more harm than good, on balance. So, let me do that now. For this next part, I'm indebted to Greta Christina and JT Eberhard, as well as William K. Clifford's "The Ethics of Belief" (1877), specifically for making arguments that inform my views on this.

There is one thing that religions everywhere have in common: Faith. Now, before I go further, let me define how I'm using that word in this argument:
the belief in something without sufficient evidence to warrant belief, or the belief in something when the evidence contradicts the belief
Keep that definition in mind when you read my argument. "Faith" is often used in normal discourse to refer to things unrelated to religious belief, spiritual beliefs, or anything else that definition might refer to. For example, a husband might say to his wife "I have faith in your abilities" when she's worried about a job interview, or a college test, or some such. His "faith" in such a case could be better described as confidence, a confidence based on past experience with her, in which he's seen that she's talented, skilled, and good at what she does. Or, in another case, he might say "I have faith you haven't cheated on me," and in such a case "trust" is what he's actually talking about, based on the evidence of his experience with her, in which she's demonstrated integrity, and that she loves him enough to maintain the monogamy they've agreed to. I'm sure you can think of other examples. The point is that to avoid confusion and the fallacy of equivocation, I need to define how I'm using the word.

Anyway. Religion of all sorts have as a base faith. This faith underpins not just the factual claims of a religion ("God created the Universe, and us," "There's an afterlife," "We are judged upon death to determine if we belong in heaven or hell"), but also the moral claims that are supposed to follow from the factual claims. When you believe that God exists, and believe that God has moral authority, and dictates how we spend eternity, then you have good reason to follow the rules that you believe God has laid down, no matter if they conflict with your own thinking and reason.

Faith inspires people to do many things. It inspires people to be honest, to give to charity, to be generous, avoid violence, and to have hope. It also inspires people to engage in bigotry, oppression of women (see "Does God Hate Women?" by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom for an excellent showing of exactly how religion oppresses women, even today), oppression of homosexuals, child abuse ("spare the rod, spoil the child"), and ignorance of science:
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin's theory.

It may seem that the balance is coming out in favor of calling it equal in the question "Does religion do more harm than good," but I don't think it is. Faith provides a cop-out of any question. It let's you claim "It just feels right," "It makes me happy," or "I had a dream" as valid reasons for believing basically anything. Even when this leads to a positive, agreeable conclusion, such as "Don't rape women," it's still dangerous. If the reason that you agree with "Don't rape women" is because you think women are, in all but name, the property of their fathers first, and then husbands after marriage, rape becomes a matter of property vandalism, rather than a violation of a woman's right to control her body and sexuality. And if your reason for believing that is "God declared it so" and your reason for believing in God is faith, then faith has become a serious problem. Arguing against the premise that women are property is going to be very difficult, maybe impossible, if your faith tells you that God is the dictator of morality.

It's not just the extreme views in which faith can become a problem. If you have faith in karma, and that everything will work out all right in the end, then there's a strong chance that you won't do everything you need to do to help everything work out in the end. You're more likely to do all that's necessary if you consider that not everyone has a happy ending, and good people do have bad things happen to them, and that bad things sometimes never go away before death.

Of course, it's possible that if religion didn't so very often treat faith as a virtue, and advocate for it, that the dangers of faith could be minimized. I don't know, but I would certainly like to see a world where we tried that out for once, a world in which this quote by William Lane Craig didn't make sense to apparently 64% of the American public:
Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.
 Yet, that is the world we're in. A world in which faith, and therefore religion, harms far more than it helps.


  1. Nice writeup. Regarding other abortion cases, there was that of the 9 year old girl in Brazil, raped by her stepfather and impregnated with twins. She got an abortion, and the Church excommunicated her entire family, and her doctors as well. Essentially they were all sentenced to eternal torture because of it.

    Maybe that wasn't the case you were thinking of, but it gets the point across.

    Tim Martin

  2. Thanks. I do vaguely remember that case. Not the one I was thinking of, true, but it certainly aids the point. Worse part of that is the rapist wasn't excommunicated, if I recall correctly.

  3. I would rephrase this: "Ignorance caused by absolute truth-based religion does more harm than good"... what Dawkins et al are looking for is a more logical means of validating faith and beliefs.