Sunday, October 11, 2009

On the Evils of Religion

I don't think religion is 'the root of all evil' - the dangers and direct negative consequences have been somewhat exaggerated - nor do I think being religious is devoid of (non-epistemic) value. However, the ultimate source of religion is responsible for much human suffering, both religious and secular. The suppression of science and reasoned debate, numerous wars, Islamic terrorism, the atrocities of Torquemada, Nazism, intolerance of various kinds (xenophobia, homophobia, the persecution of atheists, etc), Communism, Objectivism, cultism, quackery, silly public policy, and many others have numerous causes, of course, but perhaps the most important is unreason and insensitivity to evidence. The cradle of most people's religious beliefs - credulity, dogma, obscurantism, faith, insufficient humility in the face of the complexities of the universe, close-mindedness, an uncritical acceptance of what you happen to have been exposed to as a child and other vices - is also one of the principal causes of the evils listed above. The single most malignant feature of religion, then, is that it celebrates and defends an unjustified epistemology (roughly, how to know) that is also the source of, and can thus lead to, innumerable types of evil. As Voltaire put it, "those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities".

(This post was inspired, by the way, by Greta Christina's daily 'atheist memes' on Facebook).


  1. If I were to beg to differ....
    my humble view is that "religion" is not at all "evil"
    it is catastrophically stupid. The main reason is the opposite of what dr. M. Meadon indicates, namely that for any (alleged) bad consequence of religious people behaviour (Torquemada, aparthied, the celebrated quote by no less that A. Hitler "I am doing the work of the Lord"... and so on) one can find many, possibly hundred of thousands of dr. Schweitzer, arcbis. Tutu, no less than Monteveri, Bach etc.) who got something intuitively "good" out of it.
    outcome: religion is not evil, it is so incredibly stupid because it is empty (i.e. it is compatible with absolutely anything and its contrary)

  2. Well, I agree there are many people who are inspired to do good by religion. My point is "evil" (defined here non-theologically as human-caused suffering) is very often the result of behaviors, ideologies, beliefs, etc. which are unreasonable. The foundations of Nazism, for example, is dumb philosophy, crackpot science, intolerance, and a big dollop of supernatural bollocks (among others). And religion shares this trait with Nazism: most people are religious for the same reason most people were Nazis.

  3. (To clarify: not for exactly the same reason. Both religious people and Nazis become such through unreason, credulity, faith, or general bad thinking).

  4. Perhaps religion itself is not so much evil as it is a source of evil, just as a freshwater spring is the source of a river, not itself a river.

    Religion offers a community for like-minded individuals, gives hope to people, and explains the more metaphysically difficult questions. These are not evil. It's when religion is improperly applied (such as in the Hitler quote) that it is a source, or perhaps a crutch, for evil.

    As for the charge against religion as an acceptance of an unjustified epistemology, I completely agree with you. Religions are safe havens for the fickle and weak-minded. Why bother contemplating the tough questions when you can have someone else do it for you?

  5. On your analogy, I'd rather say the freshwater spring is irrationality (etc.), and the rivers are religion, Nazism etc. And, to extend it: sure, some of the resulting drinking water is good, but a hell of a lot of it is bad. Moreover, of all the bad water around, a good proportion of it stems from the Spring of Irrationality...

  6. "Both religious people and Nazis become such through unreason, credulity, faith, or general bad thinking"

    Right. Plato, Plotinus, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Augustine, Aquinas... all such irrational, "bad thinking" people.

    You're like a five-year-old tearing down his big brother's model because it's beyond his comprehension.

  7. Note the straw man. I said "most people are religious for the same reason most people were Nazis" then clarified that I didn't mean the exact same reasons. (People aren't Catholic because they were entranced by Hitler's charisma, for example). I take it you understand that most people aren't up there with Plato et. al.