The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful
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So what is it about religion -- exactly -- that's so harmful?
I've argued many times that religion is not only mistaken, but does more harm than good. But why do I think that is?
Sure, I can make a list of specific harms religion has done, from here to Texas. I've done exactly that. But that's not enough to make my case. I could make long lists of harms done by plenty of human institutions: medicine, education, democracy. That doesn't make them inherently malevolent.
Why is religion special -- and specially troubling? What makes religion different from any other ideology, community, system of morality, hypothesis about how the world works? And why does that difference makes it uniquely prone to cause damage?
The debates about religion usually come in two types: "is religion accurate or mistaken," and "is religion helpful or harmful." And ever since I put together my best "mistaken" arguments, my Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe in God, I've been trying to wrap up my "harmful" arguments in a similar nutshell.
But I'm realizing that I don't have ten arguments for why religion is harmful. I don't even have 57,842 arguments.
I have one.
I'm realizing that everything I've ever written about religion's harm boils down to one thing.
It's this: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.
It therefore has no reality check.
And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality ... and extreme, grotesque immorality.
(I can hear the chorus already. "But not all religion is like that! Not all believers are crazy extremists! Some religions adapt to new evidence and changing social mores! It's not fair to criticize all religion just because some believers do bad things!" I hear you. I'll get to that at the end, after I make my case.)
The Proof Is Not in the Pudding
The thing that uniquely defines religion, the thing that sets it apart from every other ideology or hypothesis or social network, is the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities. Of course it has other elements -- community, charity, philosophy, inspiration for art, etc. But those things exist in the secular world, too. They're not specific to religion. The thing that uniquely defines religion is belief in supernatural entities. Without that belief, it's not religion.
And with that belief, the capacity for religion to do harm gets cranked up to an alarmingly high level -- because there's no reality check.
Any other ideology or philosophy or hypothesis about the world is eventually expected to pony up. It's expected to prove itself true and/or useful, or else correct itself, or else fall by the wayside. With religion, that is emphatically not the case. Because religion is a belief in the invisible and unknowable -- and it's therefore never expected to prove that it's right, or even show good evidence for why it's right -- its capacity to do harm can spin into the stratosphere.
Let me make a comparison to show my point. Let's compare religious belief with political ideology. After all, religion isn't the only belief that's armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. Religion isn't the only belief that leads people to ignore evidence in favor of their settled opinion. And contrary to the popular atheist saying, religion is not the only belief that inspires good people to do evil things. Political ideology can do all that quite nicely. People have committed horrors to perpetuate Communism: an ideology many of those people sincerely believed was best. And horrors were committed by Americans in the last Bush administration ... in the name of democracy and freedom.