More Harm Than Good

This is part 5 of my series on doubt. You can see the whole series here.

We've already established that people who believe in God are not delusional, and that belief is a perfectly natural part of the human experience. But is faith a good thing? There are a lot of human behaviors that are natural, but are also quite harmful. You could make a very compelling case that rape is a natural behavior for men, but that doesn't make rape a good thing. I'm sure we all agree rape is a horrible, destructive manifestation of human sexuality.


Many skeptics argue that religion is a destructive force in human societies, and have a lot of data to support that conclusion. For example, religiosity correlates well with violence. The least religious countries in the world tend to be the least violent, while the most religious countries tend to be the most violent. It's not difficult to find events in history that show the violence of belief. The Crusades paint Christianity in a murderous light, and sectarian violence among Muslims continues to be a brutal affair today.

But that's not all.

The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by a sex scandal involving widespread pedophilia committed by priests and a corresponding coverup. Likewise, one man who helped start the homeschooling movement among Evangelicals was recently accused by a number of his employees of sexual harassment bordering on abuse. It often seems like there's a sex scandal everywhere you look in religious communities–even though religious people tend to have very specific guidelines in sacred texts outlining exactly what is and isn't sexually moral.

Religious people have higher divorce rates than secularists, higher rates of teen pregnancy, lower incomes, and a lower average IQ than those who don't believe.

Religion has been used to justify racism, xenophobia, the oppression of homosexuals, sexual repression, misogyny, murder, war, censorship, discrimination, and really bad music. With a list like that, maybe Richard Dawkins is right–humans are better off without God.

If only it were so simple.

When it comes to claims like "the Universe is very old and started with a Big Bang,” or “the diversity of life on Earth today is the result of Evolution,” the New Atheists have beautifully coherent theoretical frameworks, standing like towers in our world of ideas, supported by immense scaffolds of data and experiment. However, when it comes to the claim, “Religion is bad for people,” the New Atheists are guilty of the same armchair philosophizing that they accuse theologians of. In this case, there is very little data to support their claim and a great deal of evidence to refute it. They are rationalizing their predetermined bias with insufficient observation to support such an idea.

People who pray regularly have increased focus, concentration, lower stress, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of depression.

People who join churches that support them report a shift in happiness similar to someone moving from the bottom quarter of income to the top quarter. That's a massive change.

Religious people are more generous to charities. Not only do they give significant income to religious institutions, they also give more to secular charities, both per capita and as a percentage of income.

I have seen religion change lives radically. I know hard drug users who quit crippling addictions cold turkey. Marriages have been healed and restored. Depression has been defeated overnight.

I have one friend who used to be an atheist. One night he stood with a knife in his hand, happy at the prospect of ending his life–it meant he could escape the misery of his life. He'd never been a believer, but in that moment God told him not to kill himself. This friend joined a religious community, and now works in ministry with young people and the impoverished.

Is that bad? For him? For society?

And how can this be? That religion does really, genuinely awful things sometimes, and other times brings out the best in humanity?

We also have to admit that sometimes people do really terrible things without religion, and that people do really wonderful things without religion too. I have worked hand-in-hand with secular humanists to fight poverty in my community, and some of the best husbands and fathers I know are atheists. Yet, some of the most brutal atrocities in history were committed by anti-religious secular regimes. Stalin's ruthless execution of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen in the Great Purge is a profound example of atheism gone bad.

Sometimes religion is good, and other times it's bad.
Sometimes secularism is good, and other times it's bad.

What makes our world better? Promoting religion, or promoting secularism? Let's be honest here–secularism and atheism don't tend to take root well among the impoverished in our world. On the other hand, many of the world's poor find peace and hope in religious faith and practice. I'd rather tell someone how to irrigate crops than the epistemology of naturalism. Don't get me wrong, I understand that secularists work hard against poverty and suffering. My point is that only people of significant economic means have the education and time to ponder life without God.

I think science helps us understand why secularism and religion often go bad–and it doesn't really have anything to do with secularism or religion.

First, poverty is bad. Really bad. When people can't feed themselves or their families, or find adequate shelter, they tend to be more violent and more prone to crime. I would love to see all the energy Christians, Muslims, and atheists devote to debating each other directed toward the eradication of poverty across our world. Reduce poverty and everyone's world views work better.

Next, one of the best indicators that an individual will experience the positives of spirituality is belief in a loving God. The opposite is true, too: people who believe in a God who is angry or vindictive experience the negative effects of faith. The God is Love crowd forgives themselves easier, forgive others easier, are very generous, and tend to have better impulse control. The God is Angry crowd experiences elevated stress, increased anger, and increased depression. Focusing on God's Love in prayer daily is clinically demonstrated to help your life. When your God is angry, you live your life in a constant state of limbic arousal–your reptile brain is calling the shots.

Finally, we know what causes people to march into needless wars and conflict, commit atrocities, and cover up abuse. It's not religion or secularism.

It's authoritarianism.

There are authoritarian faiths: many sects described as "fundamentalist" fall in this category (but certainly not all–I know some absolutely wonderful fundamentalists). There are also secular variations of authoritarianism; think about the sort of over-the-top nationalism active in Nazi Germany. Authoritarianism elevates a ruler or text over the good of individuals, and it causes people to protect an organization or idea at all costs.

Authoritarianism convinces good men to hide the transgressions of others "for the good of the Church," or to cover up financial crimes "for the good of the company." It compels men to slaughter other men based on ideologies. When people ascribe to any form of authoritarianism, they follow orders without question and make enemies of any that oppose the authority they serve.

The secular assault on religion is misplaced. If we truly care about making the world a better place, we'll all work together to reduce poverty, promote peaceful faiths based on loving images of God, and educate societies on the dangers of authoritarianism in any system–including religions.

It doesn't hurt that the message of Christ was profoundly subversive and anti-authoritarian.

But we'll get to that later.

Continue to Part 6.