Religion: More Bad Than Good?

It happens frequently that I hear this argument: that religion should be abandoned because it does more harm than good. Whatever "evidence" one might point to in making this argument, it has a fatal flaw that, astonishingly, tends to go unnoticed.

I'm not talking about the gross generalisation about "religion." It hardly needs to be pointed out that religion is not a monolithic entity, and cannot be meaningfully discussed as such. People are not "religious in general." They are religious in specific, particular ways, and no one sees their own particular way of being religious as harmful -- which, if nothing else, means that this argument has a very limited target audience.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is the suggestion that the "harm" and the "good" caused by religion can be both measured and compared.

That many harmful acts are motivated by religious convictions is not in dispute. From large-scale terrorist attacks, to the subtle psychological abuse of children, there is no denying that much harm is committed for religious reasons. The good that is caused by religion is less visible, and a naive person might conclude from this that it simply isn't there to be seen. But there are countless religious people who quietly go about doing good, without calling attention to the fact they they are doing so, and without advertising the fact that it is their faith that moved them to do it. Even if you could quantify the harmful acts carried out as a result of religion, the same cannot be done for the good that people do, so there is no basis for comparison.

A further problem is the fact that harmful acts can be carried out on a much larger scale. One simply cannot do good to the same magnitude that one can do evil. There is no good that one can do that is even close to the same magnitude as, say, a genocide, or a terrorist attack, or even a single murder. This is true whether the behaviour is motivated by religion or not.

In conclusion, I feel like I should mention that some of the greatest crimes of the last century were motivated by explicitly anti-religious ideologies. The combined deaths that resulted from Soviet and Chinese communism is, at a conservative estimate, over 60 million, and probably much higher. But I don't feel like getting into that right now.


On Not Being a Knee-Jerk Liberal

Yesterday I read a story on Beliefnet about a woman who "saved herself for marriage," and discovered after she got married that sex wasn't as great as she had expected, and it became a source of frustration and tension between her and her husband ("When the Wedding Night Isn't So Great").

This continued for some time, until after she came off the birth control pill, and found that it had been suppressing her sex drive.

What struck me as interesting about this article was not the story itself (which is somewhat predictable), but a comment made by one of the Beliefnet members. He complained that this felt like a "not-so-subtle jab at birth control," and, asserting that a "lot of Evangelicals have been lining up with the Catholic Church on this issue lately," concluded that this story "has the stink of propaganda."

Whoa! Read the article yourself, and try to find a single sentence that suggests there is anything morally wrong with birth control -- you won't find one!

I quickly responded with my own comment, pointing out that it is widely known that some women experience a loss of their sex drive as a result of using the pill. There is nothing controversial about this. (Google "birth control pill" and "sex drive," and you'll find tons of information about this, from decidely secular sources).

The hostility towards this woman's suggestion that coming off the pill improved her sex life is something I find very intriguing. It wasn't just one comment, either, there were several people who took issue with this.

Why are people so hypersensitive toward this, so paranoid that they see anti-contraception propaganda where it doesn't exist? I'm not going to psychoanalyze someone based on a single comment on a website. But this is an example of a broader, fairly recurrent behaviour, I find, which is a little disturbing. I'm talking about the knee-jerk reaction against anything that even appears to support a conservative position rather than a liberal one, or vice-versa, without even bothering to determine if, in fact, it does so.

It is impossible to suggest that the Darwinian notion of natural selection is anything less than a perfect and complete explanation of how life has evolved on this planet without having some people suspect that you're pushing a creationist agenda.

Likewise, to suggest that a so-called "partial-birth abortion" is morally different than, say, an abortion in the first trimester, is "anti-choice" according to some people.

And now, apparently, to point out that the birth control pill might have some serious drawbacks is, I guess, anti-contraception "propaganda."

I guess it's not just the conservatives who have their dogmas!

[Update: my comment on Beliefnet has since been removed. I have no idea why, there was nothing inflammatory in it, so far as I remember. Whatever!]

[I've shared some of my own views on contraception in an earlier explication of Bernard Lonergan's letter on contraception (they are 'my' views only in that I agree with Lonergan, not that I orginated them). In case you're wondering, I'm very pro-contraception.]



Coming back soon...

I haven't posted in a while, as work as been keeping me far too busy to do much of anything. But the school year is nearly over, so I'll be back soon. I have lots of new things to write about.

In the meantime, check out this clip of Stephen Colbert doing "liturgical dance," posted on the Commonweal blog. It's hilarious, and little bit surreal.
Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.