The harms of belief in God
THE assertion “God exists and is good” is crucial to faith and to the maintenance of its institutions as beneficial. The issue I want to discuss here is the value of belief, true or false, in such a benevolent being; and the argument (an overview of the familiar with some additional points) will be that the belief itself is damaging. Taking the Christianity of our culture as the example is generous since it has, by and large, evolved into a considered and relatively mild form. If the value of this belief is undermined, the more dreadful others are also rejected.
Some might argue that God is good, but just doesn’t intervene for some unknown or dubious reasons. But it is surely difficult to argue for belief in a quality that is not expressed – a person is good through their active presence (the hardness of a rock is evident in its physical interactions – it would make no sense to discuss an entirely non-evident morality). We see goodness in deeds and can if necessary test for such a predisposition, but then testing God is prohibited – nothing suspicious there.
Faith is claimed to be natural and intrinsic to created humanity, its lack both perversely wrong and harmful, its presence specifically a benefit and remedy. The assertion is supported by centuries of authority accompanied by much compilation of favourable evidence.
God is described by holy books and traditions and the historical acts of religious persons and institutions. Evident misdeeds, the disputes and schisms of religions, their extinctions through strife or uselessness, deserve a brief mention if only because religious actions may be called upon as exemplars of right behaviour. If a direction is desired it seems always possible to find some aspect of God, some text, to support intention.
So it is less a matter of useful guidance for decisions, more of convenient confirmation. It would be interesting to present to people ignorant of context and apologetics some examples of godly acts and edicts for a “good or evil” rating by contemporary standards. The religiously prescribed inferiority of women (almost invariable apart from some pagans) in a world forever His seems a very simple but immensely important instance of enduring global damage.
It is also fair to point to the diverse and irreconcilable claims to truth as a difficulty. The search for meaning in life is surely important in our psychology, but most religious people simply close their ears to both refutation and the babble of alternatives and assert, with trained repetition and social reinforcement, that theirs is, quite simply, the unique truth. Evidence to the contrary – personal miseries and social disasters, the failures of leaders and prophecies – is inventively and effectively discounted (disasters warn, suffering makes more spiritual or expiates guilt, etc). Allegiance to any dogma, and discounting or ignoring contraries, are both inimical to wise change.
What is held in common by religions is a certain family resemblance of attitudes and practices. A duty to support others of the faith is clearly an advantageous strategy, and rituals such as prayer and sacrifice are distinctive as access to deity. The social support within religious life brings both personal gains and community effectiveness, but any other affiliation can have the same practical effects.
Ritual has a natural basis. To routinise an activity in terms of occasion and method is to ensure its performance effectively and without unnecessary planning: unpleasant tasks and celebrations both create a pattern. Seeking a favour from a more powerful person is likely to involve humble request and a cost of gratitude, and that goes for prayer also (there is some contrast with magic as power). This goes awry if, when faced by threat, a kind of foolish negotiation sometimes goes on – “I’ll always be good if …” – as a substitute for appropriate action.
Too much ritual, and religious ritual, is often highly prescribed, is a bad thing. At the least it is a cost on resources and can ultimately lose meaning and become incomprehensible, leaving society disconnected. If performance does not bring success, it is foolish for a person or a culture to pursue more of the same to desperate lengths amidst increasing disaster. Our individual inclination to excess easily leads to the troubles of obsession and compulsion, addiction, and many other harms.
Prayer includes valuable natural ingredients. There is the thoughtful formulation of a wish and its consequences, an expectant placebo effect, social endorsement by others, some reduction of stress as a problem is clarified and seems safely shared, and so on. All these factors should contribute a substantial benefit and are worth including in any therapeutic process. But empirical studies of prayer show very little beneficial effect. One way to account for this unexpected outcome is to suggest that the extra ingredient peculiar to prayer, appeal to a deity, brings counterbalancing negative effects – unsurprising as a cost of supposing communication with a being both iffy and unresponsive.
Some forms of professional help emphasise the status of the practitioner as exemplified by the priest amidst grandeur. The less self-evident the rationale of help the more this is true, and the emptier a therapeutic technique the more likely it is to be supplemented by exotic and mysterious material that the practitioner appears familiar with. This lends authority which may be supplemented by preparations, tokens and general or opaque statements that evade disproof and suggest that relief will come (as in the innumerable variants of laying on of hands, psychic healing, and so on).
The help of counsellors is often defined as person-centred. The practitioner must be attentive and congruent, regarding and empathetic, able to hear and understand, enduring and unchanged by encounter, empowered to overcome and dissolve fault and distress. In our (largely New Testament) Christian tradition of theology these attributes are, however humbly, amazingly like those of God. For aspiring counsellors, steeped in faith and aspiring to associated virtues, the role is immensely inviting: to achieve it is surely to be with God. But what danger of falling short. And while the promises of God are reserved for a heaven beyond our knowledge, the practitioner is required to deliver in this world. It is, alas, by no means the best of all possible worlds and divine intervention for its benefit seems lacking.
What faith has coincided with an era notably benign to humanity? A few religions deal with the problem of evil by incorporating destructive gods; or perhaps God is simply wicked, but such pessimistic belief has clear penalties.
Relying on God is not (simply as a matter of fact) sufficient, and hence is potentially a recipe for disaster: prayer and passivity fend off few evils in this life. The difficulties here can be illustrated by the ever recurring “end of the world”, now spurred by real practical threats to our life on this over-exploited planet. Some Christians adopt an attitude of stewardship, and engage with trying to rectify the harms of our unconsidered “dominion” (granted by one of the Genesis stories).
Others eagerly anticipate a prophetic calamity from which they alone will emerge triumphant, and so welcome such threats as climate chaos and total war. They are untroubled by the fate of everyone else and the improbability of their alone having the Truth and being vindicated in their lifetime.
Traditionally, miracles provided evidence of God’s action. But these fade in the light of scrutiny and knowledge. It may be naïve to take Lourdes as an example, but numbers drop to vanishing. More importantly, we would surely expect to see some pattern in miracles, that those saved are outstandingly meritorious or become crucial in benefiting the world: but not so, and a search for meaning again fails. It is sometimes suggested by the rich that their wealth is a deserved favour. The implausibility is matched by the economic deformity and cruel impoverishment of others caused by their greed.
Hope is a virtue that has limits. If only one door is available to escape from disaster, we must take that door, but it is sensible not hopeful. If we have a potentially fatal illness and decide to live as if we will be lucky, that seems just a calculated optimism to enjoy quality in whatever life remains. Mere hope – that wealth will come from money spent gambling, that Mr or Ms Right will just turn up, that some ultimate judgement will make all right so in this life injustice can be tolerated and misery borne – is very often unhelpful.
The goodness and greatness of God are magnified by emphasising our own deficiencies. When we do not understand the mystery of God’s purpose, the response “How could you expect to?” both evades the question and puts us in our place. In general, better educated people are also less religious while religions favour ignorance, from Latin Bible to faith schools, since anything else threatens the myths and contrivances.
Independent thought is stifled and knowledge of other beliefs is restricted and emphasises their otherness as error and danger. Learning for its own sake gets no commendation, yet such progress as has been made to benefit human life springs almost entirely from sustained efforts of investigation and understanding in an open-minded and scientific spirit – a success widely resented and therefore resisted by faith hopelessly tied to historical limitations of understanding when its own truth was proclaimed. Sanctified ancient customs and tribal laws prevent adaptation to utterly unforeseen circumstances.
It seems plausible that the originator of all things should be omnipotent. As infants we are reprimanded by our incomprehensibly powerful fathers, perhaps blamed for their (God like) anger or absence. We later learn the flaws of our parents and can forgive them, but that accommodation is not available with a perfect God. His failure to deliver a good life merely adds to the puzzle. Interestingly, those individuals who see themselves as vastly superior are often not only arrogant but also capricious and cruel, tyrants and psychopaths, well matched to the holy accounts (the Old Testament plausibly their projective writing) of divine deeds. God’s strange rules include harms of both commission and omission. It may appear trivial to mention dietary prohibitions as an example but these can have broad effects that damage health.
Humans, labelled as vastly imperfect (a trifle harsh that one temptation offering wisdom ruins all), can be saved only by grace. This is a depressive position, quite opposite to the beneficial halo effect of finding merit, and is immediately harmful. Most of us are well aware of our faults and failures (readily targeted by evangelists demanding we beg forgiveness), but the useful responses are recompense and good action, not belief in cringing lamentation.
Practices which punish the self (scourging etc) or society (as a whole or via scapegoats such as alleged heretics, witches) are foolish harmful acts, sometimes widespread. Concepts of sin and retribution lead to systems of criminal justice that emphasise punishment, often worse than useless, rather than forward looking rehabilitation followed by forgiveness to promote a society with more compassion and less crime.
Salvation demands above all uncritical devotion. The need to please God brings great costs, from many churches to many faithful children burdening an overpopulated planet. Just as every religion announces itself as true, so each commands allegiance and subjection to its God. Our Christianity no longer kills those who deny, but fierce punishment to silence doubt is the religious norm. Threat of some kind is important – a good and safe world would hardly need religion.
Clashes between religious beliefs are immensely damaging and resist compromise since the central values are arbitrary givens that cannot be negotiated in a practical way: the premises of opponents are incomprehensible and offensive. This mirrors an after-life that utterly, and very perilously for the faithful, separates chosen from condemned and implies this world is similarly divided: for some to boast and impose their righteousness, others must be wholly wrong. Faith can come with a sense of being divinely chosen, a confirming certainty that justifies harming those contrary. Relative to others it is the opposite of deficiency, and mental states swinging between extreme polarities can develop, a toxic mixture of fear and hate, love and submission.
Survivors of persecution (since the support of God is so widely claimed, religion enters even if not primary) are often hardened into reactionary extremists , contributing to a vicious circle of hate. When reasonable hopes for self-fulfilment by personal achievement are destroyed, there is a reversion to that residue of identity which cannot be taken away – the tribe, gender and faith at birth become the only pillars of self, pre-eminent at all cost. The hostile division between groups is then equally absolute.
Within its society religious belief creates order through homogeneity and the acceptance of things as they are, and it is true that almost any ordered society is better than a chaotic one. Rulers with divine approval obviously deserve their privilege and are more secure against criticism and unpopularity. A religious society is almost inevitably static, stratified and backward looking to its revered origins.
Changing things for the better, other than by extended domination, is no part of the programme. But foundation on closed belief is surely not essential (though gods have figured much in early civilisations as small natural groups aggregated into societies). After all, the majority of Europeans now live moral and worthy lives with little or no religious direction, though religion pretends otherwise: the values of the rest of us are not worth serious attention and cannot be developed adequately.
At the broadest level, the ancient notion that God attends uniquely to Earth has required endless resistance to the scientific facts of its insignificance and vulnerability. Creation, with worshipping mankind at its peak, must be upheld however great the absurdity of contrivance, for it alone can provide sufficient evidence of divine action.
These are some reasons, very briefly stated, why I think that belief in God is contrary to the well-being of individuals and of humanity generally. The writing has tried to avoid the stretched metaphors and anecdotes, the colourful language and reliance on authority typical of religious persuasion. There is evidence to support (if not confirm) assertions made. There is no argument here about the existence of God. Such existence would necessarily entail belief even if with regret warranting mitigation not celebration.
A modest belief, agnostic or optimistic, in a benevolent nature may do little harm. We are of course adapted by evolution to suit and appreciate our world, human and physical. So the merits of human character may give a sense of companionship during the journey of life and explain our doing good. We certainly find comfort and purpose in thinking of those we care for and who value us. Our best experiences can form aspirations and ideals.
But religions are assertive institutions that seek power, and the more certain, pervasive and collective the dogma, the more damage to self and others. Of this there is no shortage of examples, and civic secularism seeks to limit the harmful spread of arrogant control. Quite opposite – and of course best – is the clear understanding that firmly distinguishes fictions, sometimes agreeable, from the facts of living in a godless reality. It is the only basis on which beneficial decisions may be taken.