August 17, 2015

The Concept of Religious Harm & Why It Is So Important for Theists to Acknowledge It

When you leave religion—at least in circumstances where you were actively encouraged to be involved, not to doubt, to believe at all costs, and when your family and community were pretty much entirely wrapped up in the church—a few assumptions always follow you.

One of these is the idea that it couldn’t have been that bad.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. You’re far from the most reliable witness, right? You left religion, obviously you had an issue with it that led you to leave. It’s not an entirely faulty set of assumptions (although, to be clear, many people that leave religion don’t have any issues with it aside from what they see as its innate illogic).

There’s this idea that religion can’t be that bad. Let me share my own experience as an illustration.

The first church that I can remember regularly attending had serious issues. It was in a small southern town, and many of its attendants—especially the white ones—were deeply racist. These people actually pressured the pastor to encourage a family that was bringing children of color with them to the church to stop. They threatened to leave, taking much needed membership numbers and funds from the church, and predictably, the pastor caved. He showed up one rainy evening at the home of that family and asked that they not bring “those people” to the church any more.

That’s a serious issue. It’s  one that’s easily identifiable, one that we can all agree (I’m assuming, since you’re reading a progressive blog, that you would agree, anyway) is terrible and horribly racist. It’s a type of religious harm that was inflicted on both the children that had been coming and now no longer could and the family that had been bringing them, who left the church and went to another, more welcoming church as a result. I don’t think many people would argue that this was a toxic situation, one that pointed to toxic ideas under the surface of the church.

In instances like that, most people agree that religious harm was done. There’s no discussion or debate.

But when you look at churches like the second one that I attended, this time as a teenager, you run into a roadblock. While this church was deeply conservative, it wasn’t racist—the membership included people of a wide array of races, and the deacons of the church reflected that too (although the pastor was white). They had strict childcare policies, including a background check. They had strict money-handling procedures to make sure that the funds given to the church were treated appropriately. Everything was very aboveboard.

And there was all the good that they did. So much good.


They ministered to the various low income apartments around our church. The bus ministry would go (actually, still does go) out every Saturday with groceries. They would provide entertainment in a safe place for the kids, and then send them home with basic groceries. The church supported mission efforts around the world—many of which did provide basic services, including food, medicine, and shelter—to poverty-stricken areas. There was a divorce ministry to support those who were going through or would be going through divorce. A C.A.R.E. ministry would reach out to church members and others in the community who were going through hard times. They ran kids and teen camps every summer, and the church body would donate enough money to cover scholarships so that even children whose parents didn’t have the funds to send them could participate, at no cost to their families.

These were all good things. That’s inarguable, and I’m certainly not one to quibble with it.

In the face of churches like these, even conservative evangelical ones, it’s easy to see how the concept of religious harm gets muddled. This wasn’t Quiverfull. It wasn’t actively saying, “Don’t send your daughters to college.” It wasn’t even saying, “Homeschool your children,” although many families did. They weren’t saying, “Women have to stay home.” They weren’t saying, “Hate gay people,” although they did oppose marriage equality and homosexuality in any way. The underlying message was always one of seeming compassion—hate the sin, love the sinner.

So when I talk about the harm that I personally feel that I experienced, it’s understandable, on some levels, that people would have questions. That they would weigh and measure my experiences to see if I was REALLY harmed. It’s insulting, yes, but understandable.

To me, all religion is harmful—even “good religion”.

Recently, I’ve been reading Why Are you Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, by Greta Christina, and I think she makes the point really well. To some extent, all religion is harmful. Here’s what Greta says:

Religion is a 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. (58)

When you are in a religious environment, there’s no way to check your own assumptions about what’s real and what’s not. God can literally justify any action, and we see this time and again in The Bible itself. Hell, we tell very small children the story of a massive, worldwide genocide gleefully. You can even purchase a Fisher-Price Little People Ark playset to help you tell the story better!
Greta goes on to point out how this is very different from another motivating ideology:

A political ideology makes promises about this life, this world. If the strawberries and cream and rising boats aren’t forthcoming, eventually people notice […]People can rationalize a political ideology for a long time…but ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. 
Religion is different. 
With religion, the proof is emphatically not in the pudding. With religion, the proof comes from invisible beings, inaudible voices. The proof comes from prophets and religious leaders, who supposedly hear these voices and are happy to tell the rest of us what they say. It comes from religious texts, written ages ago by prophets and religious leaders, who were just as happy back then to tell people about the inaudible voices as religious leaders are today. It comes from feelings in people’s hearts that, conveniently, tell them what they already believer or want to believe. And the proof comes in the afterlife, after people die and can’t tell us about it. Every single claim made by the religion comes from people: not from sources out in the world that other people can verify, but from the insides of people’s heads. (60)

The reason that many nonbelievers see real harm in religion is that the entire hypothesis is impossible to verify or disprove. You simply can’t do it.

This means that, as Greta points out, it’s uniquely positioned among human ideas to do harm. There’s no question that it is not the ONLY human institution to motivate human behavior in negative ways. Far from it. In fact, I could probably turn on the news right now, and not have to wait too long before I see a U.S. institution that is doing considerable harm to certain citizens—our justice system. Greta points out political ideology—every one has produced side effects that are harmful.

But in each of these, we are able to point to the faulty premises that cause the harm. For instance, we can point to policing and say, “There are implicit (and even explicit) biases in our law enforcement officers that cause them to target certain citizens.” We can point to the justice system and say, “There are biases (implicit and explicit, again) in our citizens, in our judges and juries and lawyers, that result in different severities of punishment for the same offenses among different groups of people.” The hypothesis is, “Policing and justice are fair for all citizens,” but, to borrow Greta’s point above, “the proof is in the pudding.” We simply have too much evidence for us to continue to say that policing and justice are fair for all of our citizens. We have had a reality check—the results of the system are a check unto themselves, and the people are responding. The people, especially in the communities most affected by this hypothesis, are emphatically saying, “NO. This hypothesis is false. The system is not fair.”

Religion will never have that same self-check. We will never be able to look at it and say, “This hypothesis, or this tenant, or this premise, is totally false, and therefore we need to adjust our thinking.” Religion has a unique protection built in, one that protects it from criticism.

You may think that I’m espousing an anti-theistic point of view, and you may be saying to your computer screen, “Kayla Sue, I thought you were trying to present a balanced view of religion, faith, and the lack thereof,” and you are right, I am. I try to be biased between the good and the bad, because I feel like it’s important to acknowledge what religion does well. I even think there are things that the atheistic community can learn from theistic ones. It is simple-minded to write off religion. It lacks “nuance”.

So what I am saying here is not even that religion is bad. There is within religion the potential for great harm, and that is why it is so very, very, VERY important to point out this innate flaw—and others—in valid and well-reasoned religious criticisms. It’s important to continue to point out that there are flaws in the very basic premise—not to undo religion, not to dismantle it, but so that we are all aware and conscious of these flaws.

If you are a believer, you should note these flaws. Since there is no innate self-checking apparatus for religion, it’s up to you. You have to check the logic. You have to check the morality. You have to be the one to mark what is and isn’t valid, what needs to evolve with the times. Religion, unlike any other motivating force, simply can’t do that for itself.

Greta says this, and I think it bears repeating here:

False premises lead to bad decisions. And untestable hypotheses make it impossible to evaluate your decision-making process and adjust it. (79)

This isn’t to say that I think you should abandon religion. Believe me, I know exactly how difficult that process is, and I would never wish it on someone who wasn’t wholeheartedly committed to the process and idea of deconversion.

But it is absolutely meant to say that with great power, comes great responsibility. If you claim to know the absolute divine truth of the universe, then you have a responsibility to evaluate those beliefs and make sure that you are holding fast to what is good. It’s important to understand and place your faith in the wider social context. It’s important to examine the privilege that it may confer to you. It’s important to look at how it impacts the people around you. It’s important, above all, to make sure that you are realizing the good side of religion and minimizing the propensity for harm. It’s important for you to check it yourself.

Good luck.

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