God

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Now, I should pause here to note that although I’ve mostly been focusing mostly on the Abrahamic religions up to this point – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – that doesn’t mean that these are the only religions that have serious problems. Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism produce plenty of harmful effects too, even if those effects aren’t as visible to us here in the West.

A lot of them, of course, are the same kinds of problems that come with practically every religion – wasting people’s time on unnecessary rules and rituals, making them falsely believe that they’ll continue to exist in some conscious form even after they die, and so on. For many of these sects, there’s also the usual problem of discrimination and violence against non-adherents; in Hinduism, for instance, there’s a long history of violent clashes with non-Hindus, leading all the way up to the modern-day phenomena of Hindu nationalism and “Saffron terror” – killings and bombings committed by Hindu fundamentalists against innocent civilians.

But in addition to these general problems, there are also problems that are more unique to these individual religions. The foremost of these in Hinduism, naturally, is the caste system – the idea that the population must be organized into a strictly segregated hierarchy of social classes (with the priestly Brahmins at the top, the Shudra laborers at the bottom, and the “untouchable” Dalits even lower than that), and that no one can ever be allowed to leave or marry out of the social class they were born into. Despite secular attempts to lessen this system’s negative effects via legislation and other means, caste discrimination remains firmly entrenched in Hindu society (to the point that even non-Hindus have been sucked into it), and the social problems it has created remain widespread – ranging from social ostracism and bullying, to unequal access to education and healthcare, to outright violence between castes. The Wikipedia summary cites a few examples showing how ugly it can get:

There have been reports of Dalits being forced to eat human faeces and drink urine by upper caste members and the police. In September 2015, a 45-year-old dalit woman was allegedly stripped naked and was forced to drink urine by perpetrators in Madhya Pradesh. In some parts of India, there have been allegations that Dalit grooms riding horses for wedding ceremonies have been beaten up and ostracised by upper caste people. In August 2015, upper caste people burned houses and vehicles belonging to Dalit families and slaughtered their livestock in reaction to Dalits daring to hold a temple car procession at a village in Tamil Nadu. In August 2015, it was claimed that a Jat Khap Panchayat ordered the rape of two Dalit sisters because their brother eloped with a married Jat girl of the same village. In 2003, the higher caste Muslims in Bihar opposed the burials of lower caste Muslims in the same graveyard. A Dalit activist was killed in 2020 for social media posts criticising brahmins. A Dalit was killed in 2019 for eating in front of upper-caste men.

And there are even more extreme examples of violence where those came from:

On 11 March 2000, seven Dalits were locked in a house and burnt alive by an upper-caste Reddy mob in Kambalapalli, Kolar district of Karnataka state. The Civil Rights Enforcement (CRE) Cell investigation revealed deep-rooted animosity between the Dalits and the upper-castes as the reason for the violence.

[…]

On September 29, 2006, four members of the Bhotmange family belonging to the Mahar community were killed by a mob of 40 people belonging to the Maratha Kunbi caste. The incident happened in Kherlanji, a small village in Bhandara district of Maharashtra. The Mahars are Dalit, while the Kunbi are classified as an Other Backward Class by the Government of India. The Bhotmanges were stripped naked and paraded to the village square by a mob of 40 people. The sons were ordered to rape their mother and sister, and when they refused, their genitals were mutilated before they were murdered. An initial call to the police was ignored, and a search for the bodies was deliberately delayed 2 days. The bodies were found in a canal, and due to the length of time the bodies were in the water, much of the physical evidence was contaminated or destroyed.

[…]

On May 28, 2018, dominant caste Hindus were “enraged” that Dalits did not present temple honours to an upper-caste family, and a Dalit man sat cross-legged in front of upper-caste men. Dominant caste members also were enraged when Dalits protested the sale of marijuana in the area by people from a neighbouring village and intimidated and threatened the Dalits.

When the Dalit caste protested the intimidation and threats from the dominant castes in the village with the local police, in retaliation a gang of 15 dominant caste members raided the Dalit village at night, attacking people indiscriminately, killing three and injuring six.

And the list goes on. Some of the most heartbreaking stories involve people being killed for marrying someone outside their castesomething that’s happened hundreds of times just in the last few years. The victims are often killed by their own family members – fathers killing their own daughters, brothers killing their sisters, and so on – because this outcome is considered by the perpetrators to be more pious and honorable than the alternative of letting love be the deciding factor in marriage. It’s for this same reason that roughly 95% of marriages in India are within-caste marriages – and it’s also why they most commonly take the form of arranged marriages, in which the groom is selected by the bride’s father, rather than the bride herself being allowed to go out and find her own partner.

These marriage examples aren’t just a caste issue, though; they also reflect another problem that Eastern religions unfortunately tend to share in common with Western ones: the subordination of women as a formal doctrine. Like the Abrahamic scriptures, Hindu scripture (Manusmriti 5:147-56) teaches that:

By a girl, by a young woman, or even an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her own father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent. She must not seek to separate herself from her father, husband, or sons; by leaving them she would make both (her own and her husband’s) families contemptible. She must always be cheerful, clever in (the management of her) household affairs, careful in cleaning her utensils, and economical in expenditure. Him to whom her father may give her, or her brother with the father’s permission, she shall obey as long as he lives, and when he is dead, she must not insult (his memory). For the sake of procuring good fortune to (brides), the recitation of benedictory texts (svastyayana), and the sacrifice to the Lord of creatures (Pragapati) are used at weddings; (but) the betrothal (by the father or guardian) is the cause of (the husband’s) dominion (over his wife). The husband who wedded her with sacred texts, always gives happiness to his wife, both in season and out of season, in this world and in the next. Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife. No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by women apart (from their husbands); if a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven. A faithful wife, who desires to dwell (after death) with her husband, must never do anything that might displease him who took her hand, whether he be alive or dead.

Needless to say, doctrines like this have created a lot of problems for Hindu women over the centuries. They reduce women’s role to that of mere accessories, defining their value solely in terms of how well they serve the men that rule over them – and they facilitate all kinds of mistreatment, from emotional abuse all the way up to physical abuse and marital rape (which remains legal in India to this day). As I’ve already mentioned, they’ve even provided generations of Hindus with theological justification for Sati, the practice of burning widows alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. This practice has thankfully all but disappeared today (although there have still been isolated incidents of apparently voluntary Sati recently), but at its peak this tradition claimed the lives of hundreds of women every year.

It’s hard to overstate the role that religious belief has played in perpetuating such oppressive practices – not just the abuse of women, but the caste discrimination and everything else too. It’s not only that religious justifications have served to validate these practices in the minds of the perpetrators; they’ve also played a central role in convincing the victims that the whole arrangement is a natural part of life that must be endured without protest. According to the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, if you perform your duties well in this life, you’ll be elevated to a better station in the next life. But for women, members of low castes, and other disadvantaged groups, “performing your duties well” has typically amounted to simply serving the more dominant groups like peons for life – forgoing things like education, public services, and basic human dignity – and doing it all without complaint. As long as these disadvantaged groups subjugate themselves properly (according to this religious worldview), they can hope that they might one day get a chance at a better life; but this promise is never fulfilled during their lifetimes – only (conveniently) after they die.

I should point out that these kinds of issues aren’t just limited to Hinduism either. Buddhism, having originated as an offshoot of Hinduism, shares many of the same doctrines – and accordingly, shares many of the problems that come with them. The traditional Buddhist stance toward women, for instance – as Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa explains – is that “female leadership is impossible due a woman’s inability to reach enlightenment, believed to be a limitation of her gender. These narratives state that enlightenment is only possible for women if they gain good karma and are reborn as men beforehand.” (Many Buddhist schools have softened this stance over time, naturally, but most of them still apply more restrictions to women than to men, especially within the clergy.)

More generally though, these concepts of karma and reincarnation, shared by Hinduism and Buddhism, carry moral implications that can negatively distort believers’ understanding of the world in even more fundamental ways. After all, if you believe that someone’s station is life is directly determined by how good they were in their previous life, then that means that someone born into terrible circumstances (like having a crippling birth defect, or being born into a low caste, etc.) must have done something in their last life to merit that misfortune – and so by implication, you might consider them to be less deserving of sympathy than someone whose suffering was just the result of random bad luck. Likewise, if you believe it’s possible for people to build up good karma and bad karma that affects their fortunes, then that means that someone who suffers some awful catastrophe must, in some sense, have brought it upon themselves – and again, you might consider them to be less deserving of sympathy as a result.

This kind of tacit victim-blaming (much like the Western belief that God is always just and that humans are innately sinful) causes those who’ve suffered most to be doubly victimized, not only by having to bear the weight of their misfortune itself, but also by having to deal with the idea that it must all somehow be their own fault. As David Loy reflects:

I remember a Buddhist teacher’s reflections on the Holocaust in Nazi Germany during the World War II: “What terrible karma all those Jews must have had…” This kind of fundamentalism […] blames the victims and rationalizes their horrific fate.

And Buddhism has other unique problems as well, aside from just those it shares with Hinduism. Most fundamentally, its core philosophy revolves around the idea that suffering is the defining feature of human existence – and that the only way to avoid this suffering is to empty ourselves of all our desires until we’ve achieved absolute self-negation. This idea isn’t all bad; in fact, in carefully-applied doses, it’s a genuinely great idea – achieving control over your more destructive desires really can help you avoid a lot of life’s suffering. But Buddhism takes this idea beyond all reasonable limits by urging you to purge yourself of all your desires – including desires for things like love, companionship, laughter, and so on – until there’s nothing of you left. And trying to avoid suffering (or attain spiritual perfection) in this way is like trying to cure a headache with a guillotine. All you’re doing is emptying yourself of your humanity and becoming a lifeless shell of a person. As commenter crayonleague puts it:

Whereas the Middle Eastern trinity of monotheisms bring out the worst in us [ – ] our fear of death, our eternal thirst to comprehend everything, our need for love and authority [ – ] religions [like Buddhism] kill everything in us instead [ – ] desire, sensation, pleasure, amusement, everything. This is burning down a forest and calling the desolation peace. I’m all for moderation too, but this is emotional death, robbing us of everything that makes us human and life enjoyable.

This might sound like an unfair assessment of Buddhism (particularly if you’re only familiar with the more watered-down version of it that has become popular here in the West). But the religion itself literally defines its central goal (the ultimate state of enlightenment called nirvana) as pure self-annihilation – not just the annihilation of the perception of the self, of the sort that you might reach during meditation, but the annihilation of everything you are: all your thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams and so on. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

Nirvana literally means “blowing out, quenching, becoming extinguished”. In early Buddhist texts, it is the state of restraint and self-control that leads to the “blowing out” and the ending of the cycles of sufferings associated with rebirths and redeaths. Many later Buddhist texts describe nirvana as identical with anatta with complete “emptiness, nothingness”. In some texts, the state is described with greater detail, such as passing through the gate of emptiness (sunyata) – realising that there is no soul or self in any living being, then passing through the gate of signlessness (animitta) – realising that nirvana cannot be perceived, and finally passing through the gate of wishlessness (apranihita) – realising that nirvana is the state of not even wishing for nirvana.

This is, at its very core, a life-negating philosophy. It might present itself as profound, but if your true desire is to live life to the fullest, then Buddhism is the exact opposite of that. Robbins writes a fictional account of how someone with a genuine passion for life might respond to this worldview upon learning about it for the first time (the character speaking here is a proud warrior-king, so there’s a bit of exaggerated bluster and scorn, but aside from the derisive phrasing I think the basic point is a fair one):

Here they teach that much of existence amounts only to misery; that misery is caused by desire; therefore, if desire is eliminated, then misery will be eliminated. Now, that is true enough, as far as it goes. There is plenty of misery in the world, all right, but there is ample pleasure, as well. If a person forswears pleasure in order to avoid misery, what has he gained? A life with neither misery nor pleasure is an empty, neutral existence, and, indeed, it is the nothingness of the void that is the lamas’ final objective. To actively seek nothingness is worse than defeat; why, […] it is surrender; craven, chickenhearted, dishonorable surrender. Poor little babies are so afraid of pain that they spurn the myriad sweet wonders of life so that they might protect themselves from hurt. How can you respect that sort of weakness, how can you admire a human who consciously embraces the bland, the mediocre, and the safe rather than risk the suffering that disappointments can bring?

[…]

If desire causes suffering, it may be because we do not desire wisely, or that we are inexpert at obtaining what we desire. Instead of hiding our heads in a prayer cloth and building walls against temptation, why not get better at fulfilling desire? Salvation is for the feeble, that’s what I think. I don’t want salvation, I want life, all of life, the miserable as well as the superb. If the gods would tax ecstasy, then I shall pay; however, I shall protest their taxes at each opportunity, and if Woden or Shiva or Buddha or that Christian fellow – what’s his name? – cannot respect that, then I’ll accept their wrath. At least I will have tasted the banquet that they have spread before me on this rich, round planet, rather than recoiling from it like a toothless bunny. I cannot believe that the most delicious things were placed here merely to test us, to tempt us, to make it the more difficult for us to capture the grand prize: the safety of the void. To fashion of life such a petty game is unworthy of both men and gods.

[…]

The lamas declare that they have no fear of death, yet is it anything less than fear that causes them to die before they die? In order to tame death, they refuse to completely enjoy life. In rejecting complete enjoyment, they are half-dead in advance – and that with no guarantee that their sacrifice will actually benefit them when all is done. They are good fellows, and I must respect their choice, but fullness, completion, not empty perfection, is this fool’s goal.

Buddhism teaches that we must not allow ourselves to become attached to impermanent things and states of being – not even to ourselves. But impermanent things and states are all we have. They’re all that exist. Nothing is permanent. And that’s all the more reason for us to try to get as much out of our lives as we can while we still have the chance.

By saying that the ultimate goal of life is self-negation, Buddhism teaches people to value their lives less. And this can not only make them less inclined to strive for fulfillment in their own lives, it can even lead them, in extreme cases, to forfeit their lives altogether. As Wikipedia summarizes:

There is […] in Buddhism a long tradition of self-inflicted violence and death, as a form of asceticism or protest, as exemplified by the use of fires and burns to show determinations among Chinese monks or by the self-immolations of monks such as Thích Quảng Đức during the Vietnam war.

James A. Benn elaborates, explaining that although the Buddhist ideas of “abandoning the body” and “letting go of the self” are usually thought of in strictly spiritual terms, they can also encourage more literal forms of self-destruction:

[In addition to its spiritual connotations,] “abandoning the body” also covers a broad range of more extreme acts (not all of which necessarily result in death): feeding one’s body to insects; slicing off one’s flesh; burning one’s fingers or arms; burning incense on the skin; starving, slicing, or drowning oneself; leaping from cliffs or trees; feeding one’s body to wild animals; self-mummification (preparing for death so that the resulting corpse is impervious to decay); and of course, auto-cremation.

One good thing that can be said of Buddhism, at least, is that it preaches against extending this kind of violence toward other people. In places like Tibet where Buddhists have suffered from political oppression, the preferred method of resistance has generally been through nonviolent means. Granted, as Harris writes:

This is not to say that Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers couldn’t exist. Tibetans, generally speaking, are not pacifists – nor are most Buddhists elsewhere. In fact, during WWII, the Japanese Kamikaze pilots were influenced by the doctrine of Zen Buddhism. But there are important differences between Zen and Vajrayana that seem relevant here. Vajrayana emphasizes compassion in a way that Zen does not, and Zen generally maintains a more martial and more paradoxical view of ethics.

With that in mind, though, it’s important not to overlook all the acts of violence throughout history (not just in WWII) that have been committed by Buddhists justifying themselves in religious terms. (See here for a partial list.) Despite Buddhism’s overall stance against violence, adherents from Sri Lanka to Burma and beyond have managed to rationalize various interpretations of their faith that allow them to take up arms in its name. And the fact that this kind of “reinterpretation” can even happen in the first place provides another illustration of why faith-based morality is so problematic. There are plenty of religious philosophies that really are fundamentally nonviolent – and plenty more that aren’t. But the nature of faith is such that the practitioners of these philosophies – both the violent ones and the nonviolent ones – can never justify themselves on any basis other than the feeling in their hearts that they must be right. So when everyone has their own interpretation of which actions are divinely ordained and which ones aren’t – and there’s no empirical evidence to prove anyone right, since it’s all just a matter of faith – morality just becomes a game of he-said-she-said. Some denomination that starts off as nonviolent can spin off into a new denomination that embraces violence, and there’s nothing the original denomination can tell the spinoff to convince them that they’re wrong. That’s how we end up with Buddhist Kamikaze pilots. It’s how we end up with things like Aum Shinrikyo, a faction claiming to be the embodiment of “original Buddhism,” committing deadly sarin gas attacks against civilians. For us here in the West, it’s how we end up with other groups like the Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate cults, emerging from Christianity and driving hundreds of people to commit mass suicide. And it’s how we end up with countless other denominations and cults springing up around self-proclaimed prophets throughout history – most of which quickly burn out, but some of which end up growing into major world religions.

It might seem beside the point to use the most fringe religious groups and cults as examples of how dangerous religion can be. And to an extent, it sort of is – which is why I’ve tried to focus the bulk of this discussion on the core problems of the “big five” world religions rather than their lesser-known spinoff sects. That being said, though, the important point here is that the social and psychological mechanisms that allow for these smaller cults and sects to emerge – and to turn things like sexual abuse, terrorism, and mass suicide into holy sacraments – are the same mechanisms that allow for larger religious movements to emerge and treat things like Crusades, jihads, and genocides as holy sacraments. All you have to do is take one glimpse behind the scenes of such a cult to see for yourself how their adherents’ faith can blind them to truths that should be obvious. (I recommend the documentary below as a case in point; the cult it follows isn’t violent or suicidal, but it’s still incredibly unsettling and eye-opening to see just how their psychology works.) It may be true that the “big five” religions are the ones that have won out at our current point in history; but religion as a phenomenon encompasses far more than just those five ideologies, so they can’t be judged in isolation – and neither can their misdeeds. History is littered with countless atrocities rooted in all manner of religious beliefs – from Egyptian pharaohs having their servants killed after the pharaohs’ deaths so that the servants could continue to serve them in the afterlife, to the Aztecs committing tens of thousands of human sacrifices every year in order to keep their gods appeased (it’s estimated that during one Aztec ceremony, 10,000-80,400 people were sacrificed in just four days). Everywhere you look, across every era of human history, you can find examples of religious morality causing needless harm. The form and severity of it varies across cultures; but it has shaped almost every culture in deep, enduring ways. And although you could reasonably make a case that it served a useful purpose in the past, it seems abundantly clear that it’s doing more harm than good here in modern times. Like the scaffolding used in the construction of a building, it’s no longer necessary; and it can – and should – be cleared away.

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