The Present-Day Harm Done by Religion
by R. Allen Gilliam
The historical harm done by religion is well known: The Crusades, The Inquisition, the burning at the stake of tens of thousands of innocent women as witches, the support of dictatorial government by the church, and the delay of Scientific progress by the persecution of early chemists, anatomical researchers, and astronomers (most famously Galileo). But religious people dismiss those evils by arguing that religion has changed. So I'd like to take a stab at cataloging the harm being done by religion in the present day.
Stem-cell research was held back for years due to the completely unsupported, supernatural belief that God puts a magical soul into every fertilized egg. You reading this now and millions of other people will likely suffer needless pain and needless reduction in your quality of life, and/or loose years of your life because stem-cell-based cures or treatments for a host of diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, spinal cord injury, and blindness will not be available when you need them.
Defenders of religion claim that the promise of stem cell research to cure disease has been exaggerated. This is obviously a dishonest attempt to downplay the harm done by their religion. It's undeniable that stem cells have great potential because they can regenerate parts of our bodies lost to injury, disease, or aging.
Defenders of religion also say that scientists can now transform adult cells into stem cells, so the ban did no harm. But it took ten years for scientists to learn to do this, so whatever cures and treatments they eventually develop will be available ten years later than they otherwise would have. How many people will needlessly suffer and die during that time? Perhaps millions. Perhaps you.
Many religious people also oppose therapeutic cloning which could allow us to grow entire organs in a lab for transplantation.
Opposition to genetic testing of fetuses, and abortion of seriously deformed or diseased fetuses is also based on unsupported religious beliefs. We can only have so many children. Isn't it best for them all to be healthy? It's cruel to knowingly bring a child into the world who will suffer or who will have less than a fully human life, and it's irresponsible to choose ignorance and leave it up to a non-existent god.
This hampering of medicine is based on two things: (1) the fear of taking control of areas considered to be God's domain, and (2) the devaluation of this life in comparison to the afterlife. The first is just silly. It's no different than being afraid to look both ways before crossing the street. If God wants you to live, he won't let there be any cars coming. The second is nothing less than the abandonment of hope for improvement of the human condition in favor of a fantasy lacking even a scrap of supporting evidence.
Religious opponents of assisted suicide claim that they're concerned only that people may be killed who want to live. This is clearly a deception. It's the only non-religious argument they can make, and it's obviously a smoke screen for their true motivation: forcing their unfounded religious beliefs on those who do not share them.
Catholic hospitals are even so arrogant as to ignore people's living wills! They force dying people to suffer as long as possible, and if pain medication would shorten their lives, well then they'll just have to suffer in helpless agony until God says it's okay for them to die. And if you think this applies only to Catholics, think again. In many areas there are no non-Catholic hospitals or nursing homes. This article also reveals that it's the official position of Catholic hospital authorities that suffering is good for the soul. Horrifying. This isn't anti-Catholic bigotry. It's fact. A thousand years from now the actions of the Catholic church today will be listed in the same breath with witch-burning and the Crusades.
The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a common, sexually-transmitted, chronic infection that increases the chances of cervical cancer in women and mouth, throat, and anal cancers in both sexes. A vaccine for HPV has been recently developed. Many religious parents oppose the vaccine because they fear it sends the message that teens are expected to have sex before marriage. No major Religious Right organizations currently oppose the HPV vaccine, though they do oppose mandatory vaccines for children. They say parents should decide. "Unfounded fear of vaccines and claims that the HPV shots would provoke early teen sexuality have hindered efforts to vaccinate broadly in much of the U.S." (Scientific American, March 2015) There's no telling how many people will be killed by their parents' insane prioritization of sexual purity over preventing cancer.
Many Christians believe that when Jesus comes back, their buried corpses will rise out of the ground and ascend to Heaven. Some people actually refuse to donate their organs when they die because of this silly myth. A single person's organs can give sight to two blind people, and save the lives of up to eight people. There's no telling how many people have been murdered by religion in this way.
How much time is wasted dragging children to church every week to hear fairy tales about how evil they are? How much more could those kids be learning if their parents devoted that time to helping them with their school work?
How much time and money are wasted trying to convert people from one religion to another? Sending missionaries all over the world, the Gideons putting Bibles in hotel rooms, the Jehovah's Witnesses annoying people door-to-door.
How much time is wasted on prayer: begging a non-existent god to fix your problems rather than dealing with reality and working for your own betterment?
The belief in the afterlife degrades the importance of this life and thus saps the motivation to fight for social justice. If Heaven and Hell are the main concern, why fight kings, privileged nobility, dictators, government corruption, unjust laws, and destructive corporations? Evil people will be punished by God after death, so why take risks or make sacrifices to stop their crimes now? Abdicating the responsibility for justice to God, exemplified by the phrase, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." is exactly what unjust people would like their victims to do, since they know there's no God and no judgement after death.
By devaluing this life in favor of the afterlife, religion reduces or removes the fear of death. Violence is often answered by violence, so removing the fear of death removes a discouragement of violence. Belief in the afterlife makes it easier to risk your own life in the perpetration of violence, or even sacrifice your life intentionally in a suicide attack. Islam is particularly bad on this point for promising special rewards in Paradise for those who die fighting the enemies of the faith.
Because religion isn't supported by evidence, people must be raised to blindly obey authority in order to perpetuate religion. Such people are far more easily ordered to do violence and will more easily accept injustice. Dictatorship and religion are natural allies. This is part of the reason why the founders of the United States wisely separated church and state.
Religion separates people into groups who can then fear, hate, torture, and murder each other. It's much easier to approve of violence against people who don't believe in the correct god. You can tell yourself that you're not murdering fellow human beings, you're punishing filthy infidels. Those other people, the ones you're told to hate and kill, they don't just speak a different language, they don't just have different colored skin, they're evil pagans who hate the one true God! This goes beyond mere tribalism. There's no way to measure how much suffering this has caused. Take for example the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States in 2003. If Iraq had been a Christian nation, could the Bush administration have so easily built sufficient political support to invade that country and kill tens of thousands of its innocent civilians?
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is undeniably caused by religion. Some argue that it's about land rather than religion, but that's ridiculous. Why is that particular piece of land so important? Because it's the "Holy Land." Why can't Jews, Muslims, and Christians all live there together in peace under a just and impartial secular government? Because religious people can't tolerate people of the "wrong" religion despoiling the Holy Land, and because they want to live under laws based on their religion and no other.
Since religion is arbitrary rather than evidence-based, there can be many contradictory, irreconcilable religions. This of course leads to unending conflict.
Religious people often argue that atheism is just as prone to motivate violence as is religion. The horrors of communist dictatorships like Russia under Stalin are often cited as examples of atheism leading to evil. But this argument is very superficial, and when examined it turns out that almost the opposite is true.
First, communists believed in communism in the same way religious people believe in their religion. Communist dogma was thought of, propagated, and applied exactly as if it were a religion. That kind of thinking (blind faith, obedience, fear of doubt, suppression of dissent, forcing your beliefs on others) is what led to both the atrocities of communist dictatorships and the atrocities of religion (such as The Inquisition). The same kind of thinking produced the same kind of results. The fact that communists don't believe in God doesn't make them even a little bit like freethinking, scientific rationalists. Communists and religionists make the same types of thinking mistakes, and this makes them far more similar to each other than communists are to freethinkers.
Second, atheism wasn't the motivation for the violence. Stalin murdered religious people because they were political enemies, not because they disagreed with his disbelief in God. It was about political power and the removal of opponents of communist dogma. Disbelief in God by itself has never been the motivating factor for large-scale violence.
And third, the lack of belief in the existence of God is a superficial similarity. Unlike a religion, atheism isn't a comprehensive worldview or culture that makes all atheists substantially similar. Someone being an atheist doesn't tell you anything about what they believe. It only tells you one thing that they don't believe. You saying that I'm the same as Stalin because we both don't believe in God is like me saying that you're the same as Hitler because you both don't believe in Scientology.
Most atheists believe in freedom of thought. Even I, a person who went to the trouble of writing this essay, even I don't advocate the use of any kind of force to stop people from believing in the existence of a god or practicing their religious rituals. On the other hand, it's typical for religious people to advocate force and violence against people who disagree with their religion. I'm not saying that every single individual religious person would force their religion on others, but it is typical. There are four reasons for this difference:
First, religion encourages certainty, unquestioned faith in the accuracy and moral rightness of the religion. The religion is handed down from God himself and so it is certainly true. If you're certain, then you're far more likely to be willing to use force. There's no reason to support or tolerate free and open debate of a question that is settled fact beyond all doubt. Atheists, on the other hand, tend to be skeptical, which is a core element of the Scientific philosophy. Imagine the arrogance it would take for you to force your opinions, sensibilities, and values on other people if you didn't believe that they're handed down by God.
Second, religion is founded on faith. Religion must just be believed without any foundation in fact. This makes religious people less tolerant of criticism and dissent.
As children, religious people are emotionally conditioned to literally feel fear when they start to doubt their faith. When they realize that doubt has entered their minds, they experience the emotion of fear as if they're being charged by a predator. It's a phobia triggered by an internal mental state rather than by a particular sensory perception, like seeing a spider. I've heard some religious people say that doubt is Satan trying to destroy their faith. They were raised to see their faith as something precious that they must protect.
Faith leads to intolerance because a person who believes something without good reason will find any criticism of that belief upsetting and threatening to their ability to hold the belief. Even knowing that unbelievers exist is upsetting to the faithful. It's easier to maintain blind, unsupported faith if you are completely submerged in a culture that exclusively supports, accepts, and never questions that faith. If someone is not following the moral rules of the religion, they are demonstrating their disbelief. Seeing such people makes it more difficult for religious people to suppress their own internal doubt about their faith. This then makes them feel afraid, anxious, or uncomfortable. That's what's going on in their heads, even though they may not themselves be aware of it. They may only be aware that they dislike critics of their religion and people whose behavior shows that they don't believe their religion.
This problem is unique to religion and faith. Atheism is founded on rock solid, objective fact, and it isn't necessary for atheists to be certain of our position. Therefore our position is not threatened by contradiction and doubt the way blind faith is. If you have good reasons for everything you hold true, then people who disagree with you are not such a psychological threat.
Third, many religions, including Christianity, teach that God will punish people collectively for the misbehavior of a few. Christian leader Pat Robertson has said more than once that if we allow legal abortion or grant homosexuals equal rights, God will send natural disasters, or allow terrorists, to punish whole regions, or even the entire nation. If God will punish us all for the immorality of a few, then everyone is justified in involving themselves in each other's private behavior. Religion is at odds with the very concepts of freedom, tolerance, and minding your own business.
And fourth, the desire for benefits from God, such as good luck and answered prayers, encourages violence. If you show God that you're on his side, perhaps he'll help you out. Commiting an act of violence againt religious opponents, or persecuting them through the law, is similar to making a sacrifice to God.
These four characteristics of religion motivate religious people to use violence and force against their critics and dissenters. This leads to unjust laws as well as illegal violence against: blasphemy, religious critics, pursuits viewed as hedonistic or immoral, abortion and abortion providers, sexual practices, homosexuals, and members of other religions.
Anti-drug laws are largely motivated by religious morality. The sick Christian fear and hatred of pleasure is a large part of the motivation to ban drugs. Those opposed to drugs blow a lot of hot air about drugs ruining the users' lives, but that's obviously an excuse. If they cared about the users, they wouldn't destroy their lives by sending them to prison with rapists and murderers. They'd provide them with treatment. Much of the suffering and death caused by drug producers, traffickers, and dealers can be laid at the feet of religious moralists because these criminals wouldn't exist if the drugs were legal. The larger share of harm is done in drug-producing countries. Organized crime corrupts their governments with drug money. People are effectively enslaved to produce the drugs. Violence between competing criminal organizations kills innocent bystanders. It's largely the consequence of narrow-minded, pleasure-fearing, arbitrary, religious authoritarianism.
The religious opposition to condoms and abortion is based on the religious fear and hatred of sexual pleasure. Religious people claim they oppose abortion because they wish to save the lives of unborn children. This is another smoke screen. If they truly care about children, then why do they largely ignore the death of children in less developed parts of the world? Why do they put so much more money and effort into trying to stop abortion? Because it's actually about dirty, dirty sex, not saving lives. The availability of condoms and abortion makes it less risky to have sex just for pleasure. In the twisted worldview of religious people, this is a bad thing. How many girls have been forced to have children they didn't want by their religious parents? How many accidentally-pregnant religious women have been persuaded to abandon their education and careers rather than have abortions? Religious opposition to the promotion of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS kills people every day. It can be argued that in Africa literally millions of people have died of AIDS as a result of religion reducing international aid for condoms, and discouraging their use.
The criminalization of prostitution pushes it into the underworld where disease can spread freely and prostitutes can be practically enslaved by pimps. The criminalization of prostitution is nothing but the enacting of religious belief into law: the belief that sex should be for reproduction, not pleasure. As George Carlin said, why should it be illegal to sell something that it's perfectly legal to give away?
The loss of sexual pleasure and joy caused by the fear and shame programmed into the minds of impressionable children by religious parents and teachers can not be overestimated. Most of these victims of religion don't even realize the damage that has been done to their capacity to enjoy life. Most people never completely overcome the sexual repression inflicted on them during their childhoods.
Tens of millions of women worldwide have had their clitorises cut off and, less often, their vaginas sewn up when they were little girls, often without anesthesia. The vagina heals closed and must be cut or torn open for sex and childbirth. The rates are shocking: 91% of women in Egypt and 98% in Somalia have been mutilated to one degree or another. The rates are in the 70's and 80's in several other countries. According to Wikipedia, "Surveys have shown a widespread belief, particularly in Mali, Mauritania, Guinea and Egypt, that FGM is a religious requirement." It is done to preserve female chastity before marriage and to prove virginity, and to prevent women from cheating on their husbands by making sex less pleasurable for them. Girls who aren't mutilated are ostracized and called unclean. The practice causes extreme pain, disease, and death, and of course permanently robs women of much of their capacity to enjoy sexual pleasure.
Gay teens are significantly more likely to attempt suicide. Many Christian sources attack the Gibson study indicating higher rates of gay teen suicide as if the statistic were based on only this one, arguably flawed study. This is a dishonest and deceptive tactic. There are several studies that confirm a significantly higher suicide rate among gay teens, including ones by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Robert Garofalo (a pediatrician at Children's Hospital at the Harvard Medical School), Bell & Weinberg (1978), and Cook (1991). There's also the Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey and the San Francisco State University Chavez Center Institute study.
Almost all of the blame for the higher rate of gay teen suicide can be laid at the feet of conservative Christians. The reason gay teen males commit suicide several times more often than other boys is the relentless harassment they receive from their peers, and sometimes even their teachers. This harassment is motivated to a large extent by Christianity. Many Fundamentalist Christians are shameless in stigmatizing homosexuals, blaming them for disease, even defending violence against them as if their very existence constituted a sexual assault. Religious conservatives see sexual pleasure as a reward from God for having children. Therefore homosexuals are immoral and perverted in their eyes.
Studies have shown that religious-based abstinence-only sex "education" actually increases sexually transmitted disease and unplanned pregnancy (which derails young women's education). The abstinence-only teens have sex just as young and just as often as those who received comprehensive sex ed, but they're less likely to use condoms. This makes perfect sense considering that the abstinence-only teens are not told about the importance of condoms, are not told how to use them correctly, and are not encouraged to obtain them and keep them readily available. In some programs, teens are actually told the lie that condoms don't work in a misguided effort to frighten them out of having sex. The consequence is that they don't bother to use condoms when they do have sex. The Bush administration nearly tripled funding for abstinence-only sex education. By the end of the Bush administration, rates of teen pregnancy had increased.
Many religious people say that comprehensive sex education "sends a mixed-message." This is just silly. It's like telling teens to stay away from snakes, and refusing to tell them what to do if they get bitten by one because that would send a mixed message. Teens are fully capable of understanding that we would prefer them to abstain from sex, but if they choose to disobey us, or can't control themselves, at least use a condom. I think this mixed-message argument is just a cover for the actual motivation behind abstinence-only sex education: the religious fear and hatred of sexual pleasure. The abstinence-only strategy is based on the unfounded, supernatural belief that pre-marital sex is a sin that will send you to Hell, and therefore preventing it is as important, or even more important, than preventing disease and unwanted teen pregnancy.
Abstinence-only supporters were quick to crow about a study that showed that only 33% of 12- and 13-year-olds had sex during the two years after receiving abstinence-only sex ed, while 42% of the teens who received comprehensive sex ed did. There are two flaws with this study. First, the study was based on the teens' own reports of whether they had sex. Obviously, kids who were told that sex is bad would be less likely to admit having done it. This could have skewed the results in favor of abstinence-only sex ed. And second, the study didn't examine disease and pregnancy rates. It's likely that the abstinence-only kids who did have sex had more disease and pregnancy due to less condom use. It's simply an awful trade-off to increase disease and unwanted pregnancy among the teens who do have sex in exchange for reducing the overall rate of teen sex. The failure of this study to record disease and pregnancy rates seems very suspicious to me. If you were doing a two-year study to evaluate the effectiveness of different sex-ed programs, would you forget to ask about pregnancy and disease? It seems like they were trying to get results that would sound good for abstinence-only sex ed.
Religious people ignore the true consequences of abstinence-only sex education just like they ignore every aspect of reality that contradicts their faith. Or, they care more about saving souls than saving lives. Since there is no such thing as a soul, that's a poor choice.
Much has been written about this massive scandal, so I'll just make two points: (1) The scandal is not that a minority of priests committed horrible crimes, as the church would have us believe. The scandal is that the leadership of the Catholic Church, including Pope Benedict, covered it up and let it continue. It was more important to them to protect the reputation of their organization than to keep the penises of men out of the anuses of children. (2) If any other type of organization than a religious one had been caught red-handed covering up the anal rape of pre-pubescent boys, protecting the perpetrators, and allowing the rape to continue, that organization would be ended. Not so for a church. Nothing more clearly illustrates the insanity of religious people than the fact that they're willing to overlook something so heinous in exchange for the emotional comfort their religion provides.
And in 2016 the Catholic Church continues to cover up and downplay the abuse by shamelessly lobbying to protect statutes of limitation on child sexual abuse which prevent the prosecution of child-raping priests.
If you value truth, justice, and freedom, you must oppose religion. Do not let religious people play the victim. Do not let them assume a special right to be free from criticism. Do not let them hide behind political correctness and cultural tolerance, which they themselves don't support. Religion does great harm to the human condition. All good people should speak out against it without fear or apology.
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