Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why Religion Isn't Good

Long post, I apologize.
A couple days ago I met a wonderful new person in the group and got into a small discussion with her. During the conversation we came to the point of whether or not religion is good or bad. She thought that it was inherently good and nothing seriously wrong, especially Mormonism. I disagreed, but didn’t have a chance to really explain, or felt that I had really thought it through. Either due to it being late in the evening and a lack of sleep, or that there were several conversations I was wanting to be a part of, we left it at that. But since then I’ve been thinking it over and decided to write it all down.

First, though, I need to explain that I don’t believe religion to be inherently bad. Certainly there are bad things about it, but I cannot say it is a root of all evil, the prime cause of suffering in the world, or that it makes good people worse. I only have to think back a year or so to when the LDS church paid my rent for two months, one month being from my bishops personal finances. For the church I’ve paid tithing in the thousands, so a little back is not a big deal to my conscience, but the bishop going out of his way, that was a big deal. I hated the fact that he had done that for me, and when I paid him back the next month, I paid with interest and told him to keep it. The moral of this is that I know firsthand that religious institutions, and religious people, are capable of doing fine things and being inspired by their beliefs to do so.

But, now that I’m done prepping the pillow, time for the hammer fall. First, religion is exclusive, and you would be hard pressed to prove otherwise. Christians won’t be accepting of Muslim beliefs, and vice-versa, Buddhists can’t even accept others beliefs. They have the possibility of accepting each other, but beliefs are out of the question. A Christian is not going to say that a good and righteous Muslim actually has it all correct. A lot of Christians will say he is still going to hell, Mormons would say he is still going to spirit prison and may not go to any higher heaven than the telestial kingdom.

Furthermore, some beliefs are in complete contradiction to each other. It is truly an ignorant belief that all religious views are just spokes on the same wheel. Most holy texts condemn the unbeliever or those of other faiths, some to death. Some have one God, others more, Christianity has the ambiguously numbered trinity God. They all have different ways of how to be saved. Even reaching Nirvana is not possible without holding some very Buddhist beliefs and practices. You can’t believe in Christ and be saved by Allah or be reincarnated in Buddhism. To mix beliefs is also to piss on the same beliefs and statements of the religions that exclude others.

Being inherently exclusive, religion then molds the way for opposition, sometimes violence. This is true of both Islam and Christianity, both of which have violent histories. By making a group an ‘other’ it makes it easier to treat that group as less than human. Differing beliefs work in this way, but also differing practices. Christianity has a history full of Christians attacking other Christians. The Westboro Baptists are a shadowy example of a more violent past. They also are a great example how some people should be sterilized.

Religion generally has been a tool by those in power, some aware of what they were doing, others using it by blind faith. It has led to an increase in wars, famines, epidemics, murder, sexism, racism, and plenty of other conditions common to man. The only reason religion would not be evil, is because any dogmatic organization can lead to these same problems. Faith, which generally is blind, always holds the risk of good people doing bad things. Religion is not necessary, but it certainly has and still helps these things to occur.

The example given in conversation was the LDS church. Being that most atheists in Utah are ex-Mormon there will always be those atheists who despise the church unjustly, and those who still hold it high on a pedestal in a delusional way. I shouldn’t even have to explain how homosexuals, women, conditioning, and lies apply to the LDS church.

The LDS church heavily suppresses women, and discourages anyone from discussing the problem openly, especially feminist views. It is possible that the last decade will lead to the church being more open, as so many women begin to leave the church and while others talk more openly online about their dissatisfaction. The LDS church, like Islam, was revolutionary for women when it came into the world, but like most religions, Mormonism clings to the past, to old views and ethical standards, that no longer fit in the present world, and only seem to damage the majority who do follow them.

In a similar thread the church is an epitome of conditioning, the nice psychology term for brainwashing. The amount of recovery some ex-Mormons have to go through, the intense amount of thinking that must be changed, and the view that you could not survive outside of the church and that you could never be happy, are clear signs of a cult-like organization. The only reason Mormonism isn’t a cult (anymore?) is because it is so big and tries to get its members to be a light unto the world, therefore putting them in it (but not of it). Luckily most members learn how to function in the world with non-LDS persons. However, this type of conditioning will lead to suffering as you are continuously faced with depreciation, falling short, and never being good enough. You can't live in the world and then be told to believe in things that just aren't true or live by standards where you will always fall short.

Homosexuals are one of the strongest examples of why the LDS church is not an overall good presence in the world. I have already written about where Utah stands in relation to gay teen suicide rates; generally over 3 times the national average, sometimes leading the country. Or how the LDS church has approached homosexuals in the past, how it still approaches them today (as to why the APA looks down on the church and one reason why BYU has struggled to make a good psychology program in the national eye.) Simply look up any of my old posts about this through the 'LGBT' word, go to the USGA meetings, or ask some of my friends - the church's practices with gays is killing them.

Lies and sins of omission are also common. The church refuses to acknowledge the plight of the homosexuals in Utah, or the statistically disproportionate amount of homeless teens in Utah, where 2/3s come from LDS homes. The church has a strong history of hiding odd doctrines, and burying evidence that is not faith promoting. The papyrus scrolls dealing with the Book of Abraham are one clean example of how the church deals with things that ‘may be true but not useful.’

Though I use the LDS church as my example, also because of the conversation, this applies to essentially any faith. It is rare where we hear a friend or family member say that “beliefs and church are important, but friendships and family are more so.” Generally it is only those who don’t have such strong faith and devotion, or those who doubt, who will continue to be friends with those who are of the complete opposite in their outlook on the world, religion, or God. If not, then you better have strong skin to be told you're going to hell in nearly every conversation.

Religion has been a prime motivator for bad in the world. However, it is possible that the root of the evils in the world simply comes from inside each of us. I refuse to say that getting rid of religion solves our problems. Likewise, you cannot say that religion is the reason there is good in the world, most likely it is only a motivator, and I am unsure whether it is a prime one or not. Regardless, religion brings about good and bad, but in my experience it causes a lot more harm. The doubter will be hurt simply because of their lack of faith, while the believer will hold views that will lead to hurting others.


  1. This is a fantastic summary of the issue. I've tried to dedicate a post to the same ideas, but it's been oddly hard to express how I want.

    I agree that both the good and evil that issue from religion merely reflect human nature. People build and join religions based on the moral intuition instilled in them by both biology and upbringing. This would indicate the religion is not the source of morality, merely the expression (with a lot of momentum).
    And without religion, people would still disseminate lies for their own gain.
    On the other hand, many religions provide close-knit communities that promote cooperation and general concern for one's fellow beings.

  2. I hate the internet!!!! It didn't post my comment, and now I lost it, and it was a looong reply. Ahhhhhh! Damnit!!!! FFFFFFF!

    I'll summarize in ambiguous, broken sentences:
    1 - This post is a summary.
    2 - I'm still evaluating my stance on what I wrote.
    3 - Human nature is often overlooked by atheists who despise religion, Demosthenes helped me with this some.
    4 - Nature/nurture affects almost everything in our lives.
    5 - Hitchens is right = religion derives it's morals from us. It then falls behind.
    6 - Your final statement is related to my first = religion is exclusive. Good can be done in the community, but leads to oppression or aggression to outsiders, some minor, some overt.

  3. ps: updated the post some, no major differences.

  4. "The LDS Church is not an overall good presence in the world." Your argument here seems to be quantitative, when I think the qualitative argument is stronger. To say that mormonism is not good for gays is obvious, but gays comprise perhaps 1-2% of the population. The homosexual argument is quantitatively weak, especially when compared to the quantitative good of employment and humanitarian resources expended on members and non-members alike. For every gay individual damaged by church culture or teachings there are many more chilren saved from poverty and alcoholic parents, or young adults in third-world countried given an otherwise unobtainable education by the PEF. By the strict numbers of gay teen suicides vs humanitarian aid, the church's moral bank account is solidly in the black. If your argument is to succeed, you've got to get away from statistics and into case studies. No stats report has ever changed as many minds about the homosexual issue as Carol Lynn Pearson's "No More Goodbyes".

  5. "Generally it is only those who don’t have such strong faith and devotion, or those who doubt, who will continue to be friends with those who are of the complete opposite in their outlook on the world, religion, or God." I understand quite well that my experience is not universal, but my father and father-in-law are both bishops, my mother and mother-in-law are or have been RS and YM presidents at ward and stake levels, all of my siblings and in-laws have served missions, and the lot of them remain TBMs. I have never had any of them be less that loving and gracious toward me in my exit from the church. Certainly there are families that shun children and siblings over these kinds of things, but I would suggest that it is far less common than you are indicating here. Those with the most pain tend to be the most vocal, and so stories are fairly easy to collect, but while I ache for their suffering they are not in the majority.

  6. I KNEW this post would get you out of the woodwork Demosthenes!

    2nd post - (cause it's easier) I actually considered rewording this one. I think you could be right. But I can bring up even personal examples of people slowly drifting away, in my own life. And I don't talk about religion with my TBM friends, at all actually. But some have defriended me (on FB and in real life) and some have kind of put space between us for one reason or another.

    Those most hurt will be the most vocal. This is very true, and I try to ignore those cases. The atheist group is over a 100 so sometimes we get new stories like this, and if including other things that would stem from unbelief, such as being openly gay, there are people in that small number who have had parents become very irate, aggressive, or essentially kick them out.

    Using ''generally'' was intentional here, but as said, I'm still not sure. I do know of tons of cases where friends are still friends and where family still love them. I actually feel I could be jumping the gun on this one - I'm just not sure yet which is most common. But I guess that shows that it seems close in my mind. When I consider those friend who wouldn't or don't hang out with me as much or talk to me, then it is very close.

  7. 1st post by Demosthenes - good advice. Most likely right. I think the fact that a lot of members would act differently if they knew Mormonism wasn't true has to be taken into account, but I don't see how this could even be done except by theorizing. I also think Prop 8 would add to the quantitative argument.

    I may get close to saying it, but I actually don't think religion is bad. I know it's not good, but I don't think it's bad. I think it needs to be thrown out or heavily revised, especially Mormonism, but I do believe it brings a lot of good into the world as well.

    I may be piling up blind arguments. I have a reverse tendency of what you had months ago - I tend to see the good religion does as something anyone or any organization could do, but the bad mainly rests within the religion. This wouldn't be true, but sometimes I catch myself getting close to saying it. I know non-believers who still don't like gay marriage, etc.... I've been thinking about how I look at relationships lately and that I still harbor a lot of ideas from Mormonism that I'm not sure I agree with.

    Also, the humanitarian account is losing value in my mind as I find links and articles claiming that the church usually puts 80% or more into interest accruing accounts and only about 10% on average of humanitarian funds get sent out. The article pointed out that there's usually a time limit on when people expect their funds to be used for something, usually what they send it out for at that time. Also, there's only so much funds that should be kept for a rainy day in the church. The accountants don't claim the funds are being used for anything bad, just not being used. I can see how this makes sense, but I don't think the average member knows this is what is happening with their sometimes 1000s of dollars sent out.

  8. Oh don't get me wrong, I'm all for transparency in how the church uses funds, and I agree that it could be doing more in the humanitarian arena. That it isn't is reflective of the church's goals, which are ecclesiastical more than humanitarian. It is certainly worth noting that when a speaker in sacrament meeting talks about how to better yourself, the temple gets a lot more air time than the local soup kitchen.

    That said, humanitarian work needs to be assessed on an absolute scale rather than a relative one. If I donate 90% of my income it wouldn't make a dent in a natural disaster, while the church's six or seven truckloads of supplies and hundreds of man-hours, while a small percentage of the potential, is still a huge contribution. I wouldn't expect the same level of gratitude or recognition for my 90% as the church should get for its 1%.

    Lastly, because you asked for it, the church's for-profit investments like farms and shopping centers employ thousands of people and feed their families. If you were out of work and facing foreclosure on your home, wouldn't you rather have steady employment than a one-time handout? Those interest-accruing accounts provide capital loans to small businesses and start-ups, making them more profitable for investors and allowing them to employ more people. Maimonides in the twelfth century stated that the noblest form of charity is employment, as the recipient is then giving service (work) for service (money) and owes the giver nothing. Redistributionist trends in the past century have not been a moral improvement on that idea.

  9. Maimonides was the 1 question I got wrong on that PEW survey.

    Not at all meaning to imply you didn't think the funds should be made more public. My only point is that I think people would act differently if they knew the truth about something they believe in or act by. I'm not sure how this affects it, if the worth of their actions is somehow changed, but I believe it needs to be considered. The easy example is someone saving the life of a loved one to then find out it's a stranger versus the person who simply saved the stranger regardless.

    No, the church does a lot of good, don't get me wrong there. But in light of the cultural, social, and psychological harm it causes I am not sure I can say religion is overall good for the world. In this case Mormonism. However, I can't deny the amount of good it does, including cultural, social, and psych. again. But if those benefits are based of untruths or lies, and that those people could live better lives outside of the church, then is the worth of those benefits changed?

    Still in flux over this one. I've noticed myself go back and forth many times in the last few months. When faced with the bad I have to say religion is bad, but then when reminded of the good, I have to pause. And the only point for this argument to exist, I guess, is to decide whether I think religion should stay in the world or not.

  10. I doubt that tithing contributions would drop much if the church published financials. As long as temple recommends come with a 10% price tag that's what people will pay. Really, I don't even think people want to know what happens with their money, because if they knew then they'd feel responsible in some sense. They'd rather just pay their 10% and forget about it.

    I'm also not sure that it's fair to say that a lot of the ethical teachings of the church are based on lies. When the church says that you'll be happier if you're not an alcoholic, it's not exactly false. Sure it's couched in terms of being happier as a result of being closer to God through obedience, but the core of it is that decent living makes for a decent life. I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to teach the message without the theology, but I'm also fairly convinced that it's the theology that gives the teaching sticking power for most people.

    This has pretty much been the upshot of most of our discussions. Atheism has no cohesiveness, gives no meaning and purpose to people's lives, generates no community, and builds no institutions. And I'm not sure that it can. It seems that recently people are starting to understand that lack and are trying to rectify it. It will be interesting to see how it works.

  11. " I need to explain that I don’t believe religion to be inherently bad."

    Why not? It is an irrational system of beliefs and irrationality is inherently bad. Irrationality always leads people to bad outcomes in the long run, any good outcome only comes from dumb luck, it might give people a false sense of comfort but it won't save them from the concrete wall they are about to smack into. Religion = irrationality.

    The good that comes from religious organizations doesn't come from their religion, it comes from rational humanistic tendencies. For example: Disaster relief is humanism not Christian charity, the classical religious assumption is that a disaster is god's punishment and to help the stricken was to disturb the divine will. Historically, the good that religion has done has come from an abandonment of traditional theistic beliefs for rational secular reasoning.
    See the Christian church before the renaissance, in the dark ages it was all about avoiding god's wraith and getting into heaven as fast as possible by paying money to the church. Any movement away from that came from a rational outlook, not any supposed revelation.

    Religion has only gotten better as it has become more secular.