Does religion do more harm than good?
There is not a straightforward way to answer this question. Of course I do not claim to speak on behalf of all religion. There are roughly 4,200 religions in the world. Even within the Christian religion worldwide, some estimates say there are as many as 30,000 different denominations. Every religious tradition and their individual faith communities could be plotted somewhere on a continuum from fundamentalist to progressive. My point is that "religion" cannot be assumed to be one fixed or defined entity, and in that sense it's perhaps unfair to ask such a question as if religion could be construed as only one thing. If I ask, "Does religion do more harm than good?", a reasonable response would be "it depends on the religion," and they'd be right.
But if I was forced to answer this question, I would be inclined to approach it as follows. I would begin by skimming off 20% - the bottom 10% of extremists who rationalize hatred, violence, discord, destruction and oppression in the name of God, and the top 10% of those who draw inspiration and empowerment from their religion to be extraordinary instruments of love, peace, compassion, beauty, goodness, kindness and courage in our world. Let's just say that the bottom and top 10% basically wash each other out. So, what we're left with is the middle 80% of people involved in religion.
There are 6 common characteristics associated with almost all religion that I see as having a significant downside. Those 6 characteristics are:
1. Separation from God
The basic notion is that the source of what we most deeply or ultimately want and need as human beings is outside ourselves. In other words, the love, peace, power, wisdom, insight, courage, belonging, worth, significance, and meaning we desire is not something we can generate or find naturally within or through ourselves, but is given by "God" and contingent upon a proper relationship with God.
2. Externalization of authority to revelatory knowledge
Who gets to say or how are we to determine the answers to the ultimate questions of life? What is the meaning of life? What is my true identity? What is my greater purpose? How should I live my life? What is death? What happens when we die? Is there a god, and, if so, what is this god like? Religion typically claims that the correct answers to such questions are imparted through revelatory knowledge such as the teachings of a special messenger of God (i.e. Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, Bahá'u'lláh, etc.) or a sacred text (Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, Lankavatara Sutra, etc.). The further stipulation to this idea is the authority given to a select few to properly interpret these teachings and texts.
3. Deference to the not yet
I have found in most religions that special attention is given to the not yet. What I mean by the "not yet" is the fulfillment of a future prophesy or the idea of the afterlife. The prevailing religious narrative seems to be that our current reality and order is messed up, lacking and hopeless, and something better is coming in the future as a direct result of divine intervention or some grand eschatological ending. Karl Marx wrote, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness." In other words, rather than confront the unjust and oppressive conditions of society, the working class is lulled into complacency and a pseudo happiness by the promised eternal reward of Heaven, preached in church each Sunday.
4. Divine intervention
It is a common characteristic of religion to appeal to God in moments of great need or crisis. The notion is that there are some personal and societal circumstances that are beyond human capacity to resolve and require supernatural intervention. This is the logic behind intercessory prayer - requesting God's direct action in a personal matter or world affairs.
5. Innate badness
The idea that human beings are fundamentally flawed is a common characteristic of religious thinking. The Christian religion teaches that people are born into this world as "sinners" in need of forgiveness and salvation. Guilt is, “I did something bad;" shame is, “I am bad.” What typically follows from the "I am bad" belief is a mistrust of oneself and one's ability to direct and govern their own lives.
6. Personification of evil
The religious narrative of good versus evil teaches that just as there is a supernatural reality of goodness at work in the world ("God"), there is also an opposing supernatural force of evil ("Satan"). We laugh at the phrase "the devil made me do it," but most religious traditions externalize the fundamental source of evil and foul play in the world to "spiritual warfare," which is belief in evil spirits which are able to intervene in human affairs.
In my experience, these six characteristics tend to influence people in what I believe to be the following harmful ways:
1. The inability to generate meaning and cultivate wholeness and well-being naturally in and through oneself.
2. Failure to nurture a holistic and comprehensive view of self, life and the world through the convergence of evidence and knowledge from all fields of study and inquiry.
3. Failure to fully embrace, honor, protect and invest oneself in the present gift of life.
4. Abdicating human responsibility for the condition of the world and avoidance of direct action to bring change.
5. Ineptness for self-governance, free-thinking, self-confidence and psychological well-being.
6. Failure to acknowledge ourselves as the cause and for taking responsibility for the breakdown of society and our human and planetary ills and maladies.
The question is: Does religion do more harm than good? After you skim off the bottom 10% and the top 10%, you are left with the 80% of people who practice religion. In my view, to whatever extent religion operates upon those above 6 characteristics and to whatever extent those 6 harmful effects dictate how people live and act, is one way of determining your answer to the question.
One might stop and ask if it's possible for religion to renounce or let go of those 6 characteristics, and instead encourage, teach, inspire and promote values such as:
1. A higher view of humanity as a source for generating meaning, wholeness, ethics and harmony.
2. An interdisciplinary approach for understanding and unraveling the mysteries and marvels of life and the universe.
3. Inspired, mindful and passionate living based on the notion that life is a wonderful gift and won't last forever.
4. Taking ownership and responsibility for the task of building a world that works for everyone.
5. Encouraging and promoting self-actualization or the fulfillment of one's individual human potential.
6. Acknowledging that the only ugliness in the world is what we do to ourselves and other living things.
Can religion do this inside the framework of belief in God? Is it possible? Which brings me to my next question....
(to be continued)