God

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Of course, before we get too carried away here, it’s worth pausing to note that “writing eyesores out of the plans” doesn’t always mean jumping straight to mass slaughter. We’ve come a long way over the last few centuries, and thankfully the idea of flat-out massacring anyone who doesn’t conform to your religious beliefs is considerably less popular now than it was in the days of the Crusades and the Inquisition (at least in most places). That being said, though, religious morality still continues to “write people out of the plans” in less direct ways, even today. People of faith often regard those outside their religion with suspicion, contempt, and even outright hostility – passing laws against them, harassing them and bullying them online, telling their children to avoid them, and so on. Friendships are severed – or more commonly, never started in the first place – over religious differences. People are forbidden from loving or marrying anyone outside their own faith. And some religious adherents even go so far as to take the position that any harm that befalls non-adherents is completely justified – like in 2010, when the televangelist Pat Robertson suggested that the Haitians whose country had just been destroyed by an earthquake deserved what they got because their country’s founders had sworn “a pact to the devil.”

He and other equally prominent religious figures like Jerry Falwell have said similar things in the past – like after Hurricane Katrina, or after the 9/11 attacks, when they said, “The ACLU has to take a lot of blame for this, […] throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools; […] God will not be mocked. […] The pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays, and the lesbians […] helped this happen.” But they aren’t the only ones who feel this way. Robertson’s TV show alone boasts roughly a million daily viewers – and although many of them surely disagree with some of his opinions, a huge proportion of them feel exactly the same way as he does. This brand of religious morality is all too common in the US – in fact, there are a lot of people (including people with real power and influence) who feel even more strongly than Robertson does that abominations like abortion and gay marriage must be stopped at all costs – and this has led to all kinds of gratuitous harms as a result.

Take the abortion issue, for instance. If you believe that a human egg cell is endowed with a fully-formed soul at the moment it’s fertilized, and that destroying an embryo (or even a zygote that’s only a few hours old and consists of just a single cell) is therefore the equivalent of murdering a full-grown human being, then it might make sense for you to conclude that fighting against legalized abortion is just as important as fighting against murder (although if you believe that the soul would go to Heaven afterward, that does raise the question of why you wouldn’t want to just let someone be killed so they could go to Heaven, but never mind). But if you start with this belief that all abortion, including early-term abortion, is murder – a belief that millions of people share – and take it to its logical conclusion, it suggests not only that all abortion should be made illegal, but that anyone who even so much as takes a morning-after pill should be prosecuted for murder, and that anyone who helps terminate pregnancies as part of their job should be prevented from doing so by any means necessary, including violent force. This line of reasoning, consequently, has not only led believers to push for anti-abortion laws at every available opportunity; it has also led many of them to take matters into their own hands – bombing abortion clinics, murdering clinicians, assaulting patients, and so on – all in the name of supposedly saving innocent lives.

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The same kind of righteous ferocity can also be found in many believers’ attitudes toward gay and trans rights. For centuries, the religious vilification of sexual minorities has caused untold amounts of hatred and discrimination to be directed toward people who’ve done nothing to deserve it; parents have disowned their children, loving couples have been murdered simply for the crime of loving each other, vulnerable teenagers have been driven to suicide, and so on. Even today, most countries refuse to allow same-sex couples to marry or adopt children. In several of those countries, homosexuality is still punishable by death. And even here in the US, gay marriage only became legal nationwide after a 2015 Supreme Court ruling; prior to 2011, the majority of Americans still opposed it. (Tolerance for trans rights is lower still.) Gay and trans people still can’t live freely in many parts of the country without having to fear that they might be targeted for a violent hate crime at any moment. Aggressively outspoken groups like the Westboro Baptist Church continue to operate, afflicting the lives of everyone they suspect of being “fags” or “fag enablers.” (You might or might not be familiar with this group, but even if you are, I highly recommend watching Louis Theroux’s documentary about them below; it’s pretty eye-opening.) And again, all of this is done in the name of religious morality.

Of course, the demonization of sexual minorities is just a subset of religion’s broader hostility toward sexuality in general. Religions typically insist that no one should ever be allowed to have sex before they’re married, and as a result of this stance, an act that might otherwise serve as a beautiful expression of love and intimacy (or just a fun bit of harmless pleasure) often gets turned instead into a source of shame, misery, and even violence. Here in the US, for instance, evangelical Christians often take an “abstinence only” approach to sex education – which doesn’t actually educate young people about how to have safe sex at all; it simply tells them not to do it – and when those young people inevitably fail to abstain, without having first been taught how to have sex safely, the predictable result is alarmingly high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Likewise, in its operations overseas, the Church has taken an equally strong stance against the use of contraception, and continues to preach the sinfulness of condom use even in poor countries that have been ravaged by AIDS – which has resulted in untold amounts of needless suffering and death for those populations. Meanwhile, in over a dozen Islamic countries, all forms of sex outside of marriage have been made flat-out illegal (including premarital sex, gay sex, and adultery), and may be punishable by imprisonment, flogging, or execution. And in many of these places, this obsession with sexual “purity” can become so extreme that men will sometimes take it upon themselves to commit “honor killings” against their own sisters and daughters if they so much as suspect them of having had sex outside of marriage (which can even include cases in which the woman was just an innocent victim of rape or sexual assault).

Another related issue is the practice of female genital mutilation, which entails cutting off the clitorises of young women and girls so as to prevent them from ever being able to experience sexual pleasure. (Other variations include cutting off the labia and/or sewing the vaginal opening shut.) This has been done to over 200 million women and girls worldwide, mostly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. And although female genital mutilation isn’t practiced nearly as widely here in the West, where the vast majority of us rightly recognize it as the grotesque act of cruelty that it is, its male counterpart – circumcision – is much more widely accepted here as somehow being completely normal. Admittedly, cutting off a boy’s foreskin is (usually) much less damaging than cutting off a girl’s clitoris – in the same sense that, say, cutting off someone’s earlobe is less damaging than cutting off their whole ear – but that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow morally good to forcibly cut off pieces of infants’ genitalia against their will in any form. The morally appropriate response to this is horror and disgust, as expressed by Hitchens here:

If your sole basis for morality is religion, of course, you won’t reach that conclusion. According to the Bible, this particular form of violence toward children isn’t just acceptable – it’s mandatory (see Genesis 17, among many other passages). And this is far from the only way in which religion harms children. Bible verses are also sometimes used, for instance, to justify beating disobedient children (see Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-15, 29:15, and all the other verses mentioned earlier). And the Church itself has provided institutional-scale cover for child sexual abuse – a transgression which, to be fair, isn’t something a proper Christian conception of morality should endorse, but which has only been possible because the clergy’s claim of divine sanction has earned them a degree of automatic trust from their congregants that they haven’t rightly earned. (It’s probably also a result, at least in part, of the Church’s reflexive repression of everything sexual, and its refusal to allow its priests to openly have romantic relationships which might serve as proper outlets for their sexual energy.)

On top of all these physical harms, religion also inflicts psychological harms on children. By telling them that they’re innately unworthy, making them feel humiliated by their inherent sinfulness, and terrifying them with visions of Hell, religious dogma plants the seeds of anxiety and low self-esteem in children’s minds from an early age. It puts them under an immense amount of pressure to live up to impossible ethical standards – forbidding them from even thinking the wrong thoughts – and when they inevitably fail to do so (even if the “sins” they’re committing are completely harmless), the shame and guilt that it inculcates in them can result in lifelong psychological problems.

And once these children grow up, this anxiety often only intensifies. Despite the comfort that comes with believing in things like Heaven and guardian angels and so on, many adult believers are plagued by the horror and anguish of believing that their loved ones who don’t share their faith are bound for eternal torment in Hell. They fear that they might end up there themselves if they say or do or think the wrong things. Additionally, when they face hardship, they have to struggle not only with the hardship itself, but with the cognitive dissonance of trying to reconcile their faith with reality (“If guardian angels really are watching over me and my loved ones, then why do bad things still happen to us?”). They often blame themselves for their misfortunes, reasoning that God must be punishing them for their sins and/or their lack of faith. And whenever they’re faced with psychologically challenging problems in general, they often just pray for assistance rather than actually taking concrete steps to improve their situation. Rather than, for instance, seeking help from a real therapist who can provide them with actual guidance, they spend all that time praying to God instead – and when they’re met only with silence, they become even more frustrated, blame themselves even more for their lack of faith, and the cycle of psychological distress reinforces itself.

That’s one of the other dangerous aspects of religious belief: the amount of trust that people put in it to solve problems (both their own problems and those of others) that it can’t and doesn’t actually solve. When you pray to God to intervene in a particular situation, it can feel like you’re actually doing something to address that situation. If your faith is strong enough (the thinking goes), then all you need to do is trust in God, and he’ll make sure everything works out. He’s capable of doing anything, after all – even healing the sick and performing miracles. But what happens when this faith-based approach fails to deliver on its promises? Not only does it cause devastating amounts of heartache, confusion, and self-blame – it can also lead directly to crippling injury, illness, and even death. Tim Farley lists thousands of examples of people who’ve needlessly suffered or died because they falsely believed that prayer and “faith healing” could heal their maladies just as effectively as actual medical treatment could. Parents have refused to give their children medical care (opting to pray instead) and caused them to die as a result; children have been orphaned because their parents falsely thought their faith would make them invulnerable to harm (recall those snake-handling ceremonies mentioned earlier); Jehovah’s Witnesses in need of blood transfusions have refused them on religious grounds and subsequently died; and the list goes on. As comforting as faith can be in making you believe that things are going to be OK, it’s every bit as much a danger in situations where things aren’t going to be OK (unless some action is taken beyond just praying and trusting in God). In these kinds of dire circumstances, you actually have to do something.

And this applies in a broader sense too, not just to the actions of individual believers, but to the actions of the Church itself. For all the truly valuable charitable work the Church does, there’s far more that it could be doing, given its vast resources – but because its leaders can tell themselves that everything in the world must be happening in accordance with God’s will, they can rationalize that it’s morally OK for the Pope to sit on a golden throne, surrounded by billions of dollars’ worth of wealth, while people in poor countries die of preventable disease and famine. The Church leaders trust that God is in control of things and will resolve these crises in his own time – and as long as they’re willing to devote their resources to glorifying him (even at the expense of people who might need it more), they can tell themselves that they’re still acting morally, because glorifying God is the most important moral duty of all.

Defining goodness in this way is how religion distorts morality instead of supporting it. As John Stuart Mill put it, religion sets up “factitious excellencies – belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind – and [causes] these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues.” It defines goodness not by how much a particular action improves the well-being of people and animals in this world, but solely by how much it glorifies God. And accordingly, its idea of “doing good” often just amounts to promoting itself, rather than to helping those in need. Religious donations are often spent more on building bigger churches and spreading the gospel to more places than on genuine humanitarian work. Missionaries often devote more of their energy to promoting their dogma than to improving the conditions of the poor. Educational services provided by religious organizations often focus disproportionately on religious indoctrination, rather than providing students with knowledge that can actually serve them in their educational careers. And the result of diverting all these resources away from worthy causes, and toward the promulgation of religion as an end in itself, is a massive loss of opportunity for everyone involved.

Consider education in particular. All across the world, children whose brains are in the most receptive state that they’ll ever be in are forced to spend that critical period of mental development memorizing religious texts, rather than absorbing more valuable forms of knowledge. This problem is especially acute in certain parts of the Muslim world, where Islamic education takes priority over secular education; but it’s also a persistent regressive force here within the American education system (albeit to a less extreme degree). Christians have spent decades lobbying for schools to favor creationism over evolution in their science classes – and in many cases, they’ve succeeded. Students in both public and private schools are being taught to reject actual science and instead accept only what conforms to the religious worldview. And this miseducation not only hurts these students’ prospects of ever being able to contribute to scientific progress themselves – it also leads them to want to actively hinder others’ ability to do so once they’re old enough to vote and influence public affairs.

After all, when you’ve been raised to oppose certain scientific pursuits for religious reasons, you’re bound to feel morally obligated to push back against them wherever you see them. And that means that religious activists have consistently stood in the way of scientific advancement – not only in education, but also in areas like stem cell research, where potentially life-saving medical breakthroughs (using cells taken from five-day-old embryos) are hindered by believers who consider the destruction of embryos to be equivalent to murder. Euthanasia is another issue with a similar dynamic; even in cases where medical science has determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that certain patients can’t be saved, and that keeping them alive will do nothing but prolong their agony, believers often insist on keeping them alive anyway due to religious principles (and the misguided hope that God might still miraculously intervene). Even environmental issues often face resistance from religious believers, who argue that because God is in control of everything, we don’t need to worry about messing up the planet or causing other species to go extinct. (This point was most memorably argued by a senator who had previously chaired the Committee on Environment and Public Works and would later return to that position.)

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And as much as this anti-science inclination has held back progress here in the first world, it’s been even more of a hindrance in the poorest and most desperate parts of the world, where things like divination and shamanistic magic still play a major role in believers’ understanding of reality. The widely-held belief that humans are capable of channeling supernatural forces not only causes these populations to waste their time trying to solve problems with mysticism rather than scientific tools; it also undermines their social order in more insidious ways – like, for instance, making them more inclined to distrust others in their community whom they suspect of using such mysticism against them. We here in the West tend to think of witch hunts as being relics of a bygone era, but in places like Africa, India, and Papua New Guinea, accusations of witchcraft still occur by the hundreds of thousands. In fact, there are far more people being killed for alleged witchcraft today than there ever were during the days of the Salem witch trials.

Despite the gender-loaded term “witchcraft,” which might make you think that this problem only affects women, there are plenty of men being killed for supposedly practicing this kind of sorcery as well. Even children are increasingly being targeted in shockingly large numbers for torture, death, and dismemberment. (As the Wikipedia article notes, “Children accused of witchcraft may be subjected to violent exorcism rituals by African Pentecostal-Charismatic pastors [which] may include incarceration, starvation, being made to drink hazardous substances or even being set on fire with gasoline.”)

That being said, though, most witch hunts do target women specifically – and this isn’t a coincidence. One of the biggest ways in which religion distorts people’s values (along with endorsing bigotry against sexual minorities, encouraging distrust of nonbelievers, and so on) is by promoting prejudice against women. This misogyny goes all the way back to the days of the Old Testament and beyond, when women were considered to be little more than property; but it has continued throughout the centuries to include horrors like Sati (the Hindu practice of burning widows alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres) and the execution of female “heretics” like Joan of Arc for the crime (according to Deuteronomy 22:5) of wearing men’s clothing (which, in Joan of Arc’s case, she had to do to protect herself from being raped by prison guards).

Even today, churches continue to maintain explicitly sexist stances toward women, based on biblical passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 which say that women must never be allowed to hold positions of authority over men. Women still aren’t allowed to be ordained as priests or hold leadership positions within Christianity’s largest denominations (nor are they allowed to become rabbis in Orthodox Judaism). In fact, in 2010 the Vatican declared the attempted ordination of a woman to be as grave a crime as child molestation. And the biblical passages that form the basis of these policies – like 1 Peter 3:7, which says that women are the weaker sex, and 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, which says that women were created to serve men, not the other way around – are also used to justify the subjugation of women in daily life, not just in the Church hierarchy. According to Genesis 3:16 and Ephesians 5:22, women must remain subordinate to their husbands (“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. […] Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”); and according to Titus 2:5, the role of women is “to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.” Verses like these have led many Christians to maintain strict “biblical gender roles” or “biblical patriarchy” within their households and communities, which, as Michael Farris explains, involves adopting ideas like “women should not vote, […] higher education is not important for women, [and] unmarried adult women are subject to their fathers’ authority.” And predictably, this ideology of male supremacy has also facilitated things like physical abuse, emotional abuse, and rape. Men who believe that their wives are divinely obligated to give them whatever they want, when faced with situations where their wives are refusing them, are more likely to just take what they want by force, since they feel morally justified in doing so. An excerpt from the Biblical Gender Roles website provides a glimpse into the kind of mindset at work here:

Biblically speaking the modern concept of “marital rape” is an oxymoron. It is impossible from a Biblical perspective for a man to rape his wife. The Bible defines unlawful forced sex or what we would call rape as when a man forces a woman who is not married to him to have sex with him see Deuteronomy 22:23-29 for more on this. God condones forced sex in marriage in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 and he symbolizes himself as a husband who “humbles” his wife Israel in Deuteronomy 8:2-3. For more on this subject see my article “Why the Bible Allows Forced Sex in Marriage”.

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