Criticism of religion

Criticism of religion

Criticism of religion is criticism of the concepts, validity, and/or practices of religion, including associated political and social implications.[1][page needed]

Religious criticism has a long history, going back at least as far as the 5th century BCE in ancient Greece with Diagoras "the atheist" of Melos, and 1st century BCE in Rome with Titus Lucretius Carus's De Rerum Natura, and continuing to the present day with the advent of New Atheism, represented by such authors as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens.

Critics consider religion to be outdated, harmful to the individual (such as brainwashing of children, faith healing, circumcision), harmful to society (such as holy wars, terrorism, wasteful distribution of resources), to impede the progress of science, and to encourage immoral acts (such as blood sacrifice, discrimination against homosexuals and women).



The 1st century BCE Roman poet, Titus Lucretius Carus, in his magnum opus De Rerum Natura, wrote: "But 'tis that same religion oftener far / Hath bred the foul impieties of men:"[2] A philosopher of the Epicurean school, Lucretius believed the world was composed solely of matter and void, and that all phenomena could be understood as resulting from purely natural causes. Lucretius, like Epicurus, felt that religion was born of fear and ignorance, and that understanding the natural world would free people of its shackles.[3]

Niccolò Machiavelli, at the beginning of the 16th century said: "We Italians are irreligious and corrupt above others... because the church and her representatives have set us the worst example."[4] To Machiavelli, religion was merely a tool, useful for a ruler wishing to manipulate public opinion.[5]

Writing in 1776 of the ancient Romans, Edward Gibbon said: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful."[6]

Deism became prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, mostly among those raised as Christians who found they could not believe in either the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, miracles, or the inerrancy of scriptures, but who did believe in one god. Initially it did not form any congregations, but in time deism strongly influenced other religious groups, such as Unitarianism and Universalism, which developed from it. It continues to this day in the form of classical deism and modern deism.[citation needed]

Interest in and controversy over criticism of religion has increased in the 21st century due to the spread of so-called New Atheism.[citation needed]

Criticism of religious concepts

A sign that criticizes religion and draws attention to the September 11 attacks, by the Connecticut Valley Atheists in Rockville's Central Park, Vernon in December 2007. The group issued an explanatory press release, stating: "Clearly, 9/11 is the work of fanatics. However, we feel that religion even in moderation provides a foundation for fanatical groups to thrive."[7]
A dinosaur leading sheep, Cologne, August 2005

A major criticism of many religions is that they require beliefs that are irrational, unscientific, or unreasonable. Stated differently, religious beliefs and traditions lack scientific or rational foundations. There are several aspects to this criticism, including:

  • Religions often posit facts that are contradicted by scientific evidence (e.g. evolution, origin of the universe, miracles); for example, the claim that prayer has a beneficial effect on others has been tested and disproved.[8]
  • Religions often require behaviors that are not sensible (such as the Old Testament prohibition against wearing garments of mixed fabrics, or punishing children of guilty parents).[9]
  • Religions and their holy books contain rules and laws designed to govern behavior and conduct, some of which—within a single religion—are contradictory or impossible to follow.[citation needed]
  • Religions and their holy books often contain conflicting facts or histories (for example, discrepancies in the Bible among the four Gospels of the New Testament).[10][11][12]
  • Religions have claimed the truth of stories which contain elements indistinguishable from fairy tales or superstitions (such as astrology or Santa Claus).[citation needed]
  • Religions cannot adapt to a changing world, and their teachings are outdated in comparison with modern Western morals. For instance, the rules on certain diets—such as the Torah's prohibition of eating pork or shellfish—may have made sense some thousands of years ago, when certain animals were often infested with parasites. However, such a prohibition in modern times may be illogical, as the quality and safety of food have improved.[citation needed]

Religions have promoted facts and histories that are contradicted by science. These often form the basis of significant controversies, such as the trial of Galileo for his purported heresy that the earth moves around the sun. The origin of the earth or universe is often described by holy books in the form of creation myths, which are contradicted by scientific theories of cosmology. The origin of the human species, as presented by many Christian sects, is contradicted by the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection. In other cases, religions assert the factual existence of phenomena such as miracles and angels, which are not necessarily contradicted by science, but find little or no scientific support.

Religious adherents, such as the notable Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, counter these arguments by suggesting that all religions, by definition, involve faith, or a belief in concepts that cannot be proven or disproven by science. However, some religious beliefs have been disproven by science, for instance Young Earth creationism.[13] Scientist Stephen Jay Gould agreed with C. S. Lewis and suggested that religion and science were non-overlapping magisteria.[14] Scientist Richard Dawkins has said that religious practitioners often do not believe in the view of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).[8] Dawkins argues that any time a religious person claims that a certain event (e.g. the Love Parade stampede)[15] is a punishment by God or that they have been helped or rewarded by God for their actions ("thank god") the NOMA thesis is violated. For NOMA to hold, Dawkins argues the supernatural being in question must not have any effect on people's physical lives, and that only claims regarding the afterlife are allowed.

Conflicting claims of "one true faith"

Some critics of religion discuss the multiplicity of religions that claim to be the one true faith, such as Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, or Evangelical Christianity. Critics point out that if two or more religions claim to be the only valid faith, then logic dictates that the claims of all but one of those religions must be wrong. Atheist Stephen Roberts illustrates this principle as follows:

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
— Stephen F. Roberts,[16] quoted in Like Rolling Uphill

Survey research from the US indicates that many people change their religious affiliation over time. Those with no religious affiliation are the fastest growing group. However, this group has a relatively low retention rate (46%) when compared to other groups. Such data suggest that significant numbers of people do not believe consistently that a single faith is uniquely true.[17]

Lack of permanence

Critics such as Opsopaus and Hitchens cite what they describe as obsolete religions—religions that no longer have active adherents—as evidence that religions are not everlasting, as the religions claim.[18] Some obsolete religions discussed by critics include Greek mythology, Millerism, Roman mythology, Sabbatai Sevi, and Norse mythology.[19] The short work "The Syrian Goddess" by the ancient author Lucian of Samosata provides many examples of once thriving religions that had gone out of existence.[20]

Explanations as non-divine in origin

Social construct

Some critics of religion, including Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, assert that theist religions and their holy books are not divinely inspired, but instead are fabrications of non-divine human individuals, created to fulfill social, biological, and political needs.[21][page needed][22][page needed][23][page needed] Dawkins balances the benefits of religious beliefs (mental solace, community-building, promotion of virtuous behavior) against the drawbacks.[24][page needed] Such criticisms treat religion as a social construct[25] and thus just another human ideology. Under this view, the origins of religion lie in human beings and human societies, not in the intervention of some divine being or cosmic truth. Accordingly, the historicity of religious accounts is called into question.

Narratives to provide comfort and meaning

With the exception of more modern religions, such as Raëlism, Mormonism, Scientology, and the Bahá'í Faith, most religions were formulated at a time when the origin of life, the workings of the body, and the nature of the stars and planets were poorly understood.[26] Religious systems attempted to address significant personal emotional issues, and tried to explain a frightening existence, usually through a dramatic narrative outlining how the world and their community came to be.

These narratives were intended to give solace and a sense of relationship with larger forces. As such, they may have served several important functions in ancient societies. Examples include the views many religions traditionally had towards solar and lunar eclipses, and the appearance of comets (forms of astrology).[27][28] Given current understanding in such fields as biology, psychology, chemistry, and physics, where human knowledge has increased dramatically, many critics — including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Michel Onfray — contend that continuing to hold on to these idea systems is absurd and irrational.[23][24][29]

Stanford computer scientist John McCarthy states, "We also have no need for [the hypothesis of God], because science has been successful, and science is the best approach to solving the mysteries that remain."[30] Apologists for religion such as William Lane Craig, however, claim that there are reasonable arguments supporting the existence of God.[31]

Opium of the people

Religious suffering is, at the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

According to Karl Marx, religion is a tool utilized by the ruling classes whereby the masses can shortly relieve their suffering via the act of experiencing religious emotions. It is in the interest of the ruling classes to instill in the masses the religious conviction that their current suffering will lead to eventual happiness. Therefore as long as the public believes in religion, they will not attempt to make any genuine effort to understand and overcome the real source of their suffering, which in Marx's opinion was their capitalist economic system.[32]

In this perspective, Marx saw religion as escapism:[32]

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Marx also viewed the Christian doctrine of original sin as being deeply anti-social in character. Original sin, he argued, convinces people that the source of their misery lies in the inherent and unchangeable "sinfulness" of humanity rather than in the forms of social organization and institutions, which, Marx argued, can be changed through the application of collective social planning.[33]

Viruses of the mind

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term memes to describe informational units that can be transmitted culturally, analogous to genes.[34] He later used this concept in the essay "Viruses of the Mind" to explain the persistence of religious ideas in human culture.[35]

Dawkins argues that religious ideologies are a set of ideas and concepts working together to ensure the perpetuation and proliferation of the religion itself. For instance, important concepts in Christianity are raising one's children to be Christians, following The Great Commission and its monotheistic nature. These are proposed to work together to protect the religion from competition from other memes. In this context, religion is criticized for being maladaptive in that it can cause the carrier of that meme to act irrationally, misallocate resources and feel guilt, fear or other negative emotions without real reason.

Religion apologist John Bowker criticized the idea that "God" and "Faith" are viruses of the mind, suggesting that Dawkins' "account of religious motivation ... is ... far removed from evidence and data" and that, even if the God-meme approach were valid, "it does not give rise to one set of consequences ... Out of the many behaviours it produces, why are we required to isolate only those that might be regarded as diseased?"[36] Alister McGrath has responded by arguing that "memes have no place in serious scientific reflection",[37] that there is strong evidence that such ideas are not spread by random processes, but by deliberate intentional actions,[38] that "evolution" of ideas is more Lamarckian than Darwinian,[39] and that there is no evidence (and certainly none in the essay) that epidemiological models usefully explain the spread of religious ideas.[40] McGrath also cites a metareview of 100 studies and argues that "[i]f religion is reported as having a positive effect on human well-being by 79% of recent studies in the field, how can it conceivably be regarded as analogous to a virus?"[41]

Mental illness or delusion

Bodies recovered from the Jonestown massacre, in which members of a religious cult committed a mass murder/suicide

Critics such as Richard Dawkins argue that religious belief often involves delusional behavior.[24] American author Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation compares religion to mental illness, saying it "allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy."[42]

There are also psychological studies into the phenomenon of mysticism, and the links between disturbing aspects of certain mystic's experiences and their links to childhood abuse.[43][44][45] In another line of research, Clifford A. Pickover explores evidence suggesting that temporal lobe epilepsy may be linked to a variety of spiritual or ‘other worldly’ experiences, such as spiritual possession, originating from altered electrical activity in the brain.[46] Carl Sagan, in his last book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, presented his case for the miraculous sightings of religious figures in the past and the modern sightings of UFOs coming from the same mental disorder. According to Professor Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, "It's possible that many great religious leaders had temporal lobe seizures and this predisposes them to having visions, having mystical experiences."[47] Dr. Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of the brain artificially with a magnetic field using a device nicknamed the "God helmet," and was able to artificially induce religious experiences along with near-death experiences and ghost sightings.[48] Neuropsychology Professor John Bradshaw also says:

Some forms of temporal lobe tumours or epilepsy are associated with extreme religiosity. Recent brain imaging of devotees engaging in prayer or transcendental meditation has more precisely identified activation in such sites — God-spots, as Vilayanur Ramachandran calls them. Psilocybin from mushrooms contacts the serotonergic system, with terminals in these and other brain regions, generating a sense of cosmic unity, transcendental meaning and religious ecstasy. Certain physical rituals can generate both these feelings and corresponding serotonergic activity.[49]

Religion apologist Keith Ward in his book Is Religion Dangerous? addresses the claim that religious belief is a delusion. He quotes the definition in the Oxford Companion to Mind as "a fixed, idiosyncratic belief, unusual in the culture to which the person belongs," and notes that "[n]ot all false opinions are delusions." Ward then characterizes a delusion as a "clearly false opinion, especially as a symptom of a mental illness," an "irrational belief" that is "so obviously false that all reasonable people would see it as mistaken." He then says that belief in God is different, since "[m]ost great philosophers have believed in God, and they are rational people". He argues that "[a]ll that is needed to refute the claim that religious belief is a delusion is one clear example of someone who exhibits a high degree of rational ability, who functions well in the ordinary affairs of life ... and who can produce a reasonable and coherent defense of their beliefs" and claims that there are many such people, "including some of the most able philosophers and scientists in the world today."[50]

Evolved characteristic of the human brain

Some critics, such as Richard Dawkins and Pascal Boyer, contend that religion is nothing more than a social construct that primitive humans evolved to improve their odds of survival. Dawkins and others have posited that a pre-disposition to believe in superstitions and religion could enhance the survival of the human species, by enhancing fear of imagined (and sometimes real) dangers, and thus increasing the likelihood that humans would take pre-emptive defensive measures.

Research in 2009 on the so-called "God Spot" has found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief, one within the frontal lobes of the cortex—which are distinctively developed in humans—and another in the more evolutionary-ancient regions deeper inside the brain, which humans share with apes and other primates. The study found that people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum which were also the same ones used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God. The findings support the idea that the brain has evolved to be sensitive to any form of belief that improves the chances of survival and suggests the brain is inherently sensitive to believing in almost anything if there are grounds for doing so. This work was followed by a study where scientists tried to stimulate the temporal lobes with a rotating magnetic field. Michael Persinger, from Laurentian University in Ontario, found that he could artificially create the experience of religious feelings in 80% of volunteers.[51]

Immature stage of societal development

Philosophy and Christian Art. W. Ridgway, 1878

Some critics of religion say that religion is merely an early phase during the development of a culture or society, and that religion is often replaced with more rational or reasonable belief systems. Many critics assert that the needs of religion can be met with alternative, superior means, namely: the need for explaining life and death can be met by science and philosophy; questions of good and evil are addressed by ethics; and inspiration and beauty can be found in the arts.[52]

Daniel Dennett in Venice 2006

Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell, said "I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. I think that in about twenty-five years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe it does today."[53]

Geoffrey Miller,[54] in the November 2006 edition of New Scientist said: "Evolutionary moral psychology will reveal the social conditions under which human moral virtues flourish. The US will follow the UK in realizing that religion is not a prerequisite for ordinary human decency. Thus, science will kill religion — not by reason challenging faith, but by offering a more practical, universal and rewarding moral framework for human interaction. A naturalistic moral philosophy will replace the rotting fictions of theological ethics."[55] Dr. John Bradshaw, Professor of Neuropsychology at Monash University in Melbourne, wrote: "Evolutional models are every bit as beautiful and intellectually and morally satisfying as the myths, stories and precepts of an ossified theology — and they can explain, predict and be applied in hosts of important and socially useful ways."[49]

Philosopher Auguste Comte posited that many societal constructs pass through three stages, and that religion corresponds to the two earlier, or more primitive stages.

From the study of the development of human intelligence, in all directions, and through all times, the discovery arises of a great fundamental law, to which it is necessarily subject, and which has a solid foundation of proof, both in the facts of our organization and in our historical experience. The law is this: that each of our leading conceptions – each branch of our knowledge – passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the theological, or fictitious; the metaphysical, or abstract; and the scientific, or positive.
— Auguste Comte

Harm to individuals

Many aspects of religion are criticized by skeptics on the basis that they are harmful to the individual believer.[56] They cite the effects of dogmatic adherence to irrational beliefs and practices such as withholding medical care[57] and self-sacrifice,[58] as well as unnatural restrictions on human behavior (such as teetotalism, sexual prohibitions) and the subsequent mental and emotional trauma of fear and guilt.[59]

Child abuse

Critics such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins use the term "child abuse" to describe the harm that some religious upbringings inflict on children.[60][61] They claim that children are especially vulnerable to mental harms related to religion, including:

  • Terrorized by threats of punishment, such as eternal damnation in a fiery hell
  • Extreme guilt about normal, healthy sexual functions
  • Trained to disrespect science and reason
  • Indoctrinated into a particular religious faith, thus depriving the child of the opportunity to make their own free inquiry later, when they are mature

Dawkins is angered by the term "Muslim child" or a "Catholic child". He asks how a young child can possibly be considered intellectually mature enough to have such independent views on the cosmos and humanity’s place within it. By contrast, Dawkins points out, no reasonable person would speak of a "Marxist child" or a "Tory child."[60]

Pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer spoke of the subject in 19th century:

And as the capacity for believing is strongest in childhood, special care is taken to make sure of this tender age. This has much more to do with the doctrines of belief taking root than threats and reports of miracles. If, in early childhood, certain fundamental views and doctrines are paraded with unusual solemnity, and an air of the greatest earnestness never before visible in anything else; if, at the same time, the possibility of a doubt about them be completely passed over, or touched upon only to indicate that doubt is the first step to eternal perdition, the resulting impression will be so deep that, as a rule, that is, in almost every case, doubt about them will be almost as impossible as doubt about one's own existence.
—Arthur Schopenhauer, On Religion: A Dialogue

Child brides

Islam[62] has permitted the child marriage of older men to girls as young as 10 years of age. The Seyaj Organization for the Protection of Children describes cases of a 10 year old girl being married and raped in Yemen (Nujood Ali),[63] a 13 year old Yemeni girl dying of internal bleeding three days after marriage,[64][65] and a 12 year old girl dying in childbirth after marriage.[62][66]

Latter Day Saint church founder Joseph Smith married girls as young as 13 and 14,[67] and other Latter Day Saints married girls as young as 10.[68] The The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints eliminated underaged marriages in the 19th century, but several fundamentalist branches of Mormonism continue the practice.[69]

Inadequate medical care

Saint Francis Borgia engaging in handwaving while performing an exorcism, by Goya

Some religions treat illness, both mental and physical, in a manner that does not heal, and in some cases exacerbates the problem. Specific examples include faith healing of certain Christian sects, the Christian Science religion which eschews medical care, and exorcisms.[70][71]

Faith based practices for healing purposes have come into direct conflict with both the medical profession and the law when victims of these practices are harmed, or in the most extreme cases, killed by these "cures."[57][72][73] A detailed study in 1998 found 140 instances of deaths of children due to religion-based medical neglect. Most of these cases involved religious parents relying on prayer to cure the child's disease, and withholding medical care.[56]

In 2011, a longitudinal scientific study from the Northwestern University School of Medicine concluded that religious young adults are "50 percent more likely to be obese by middle age after adjusting for differences in age, race, sex, education, income, and baseline body mass index."[74] The study tracked 2,433 subjects over a period of 18 years.

Jerusalem syndrome

There are certain places with deep associations with religious feeling, often called places of pilgrimage. One of these is Jerusalem, which is revered by followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem has lent its name to a unique psychological phenomenon where Jewish or Christian individuals who develop obsessive religious themed ideas or delusions (sometimes believing themselves to be Jesus Christ or another prophet) will feel compelled to travel to Jerusalem.[75][76]

During a period of 13 years (1980–1993) for which admissions to the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre in Jerusalem were analysed, it was reported[77] that 1,200 tourists with severe, Jerusalem-themed mental problems were referred to this clinic. Of these, 470 were admitted to hospital. On average, 100 such tourists have been seen annually, 40 of them requiring admission to hospital. About 2 million tourists visit Jerusalem each year. Kalian and Witztum note that as a proportion of the total numbers of tourists visiting the city, this is not significantly different from any other city.[78][79] The statements of these claims has however been disputed, with the arguments that experiencers of the Jerusalem syndrome already were mentally ill.[78][80]

Guilt about normal sexual functions

Critics such as Hitchens assert that many religions view some types of natural sexual activity (such as homosexuality or masturbation) as evil or immoral, and that this view can sometimes lead to neuroses or other ill effects.[59] Hitchens also argues that virginity is unhealthy, and can lead to emotional problems.

Blood sacrifice

Depiction of Aztec human sacrifice from the 16th century Codex Magliabechiano

Hitchens claims that many religions endorse blood sacrifice, wherein innocent victims are killed or harmed to appease deities,[81] specifically citing Judaism for its obsession with blood and sacrifice, particularly the goal of identifying and sacrificing of a pure red heifer (described in Numbers 19), the pursuit of which Hitchens characterizes as "absurd", singling out the goal of raising a human child in a "bubble" so as to "be privileged to cut that heifer's throat".[82] Another prominent example is the daily sacrifice of humans practiced by the Aztecs.[83][84]

Genital modification and mutilation

Hitchens claims that many religions endorse male circumcision and female genital cutting, which he views as genital mutilation, and as immoral, unhealthy, and unnecessary.[85]


Responding in the book The Irrational Atheist to criticisms that religion is harmful, Theodore Beale argues that religious individuals tend to be happier and healthier, more likely to have children, and more sexually satisfied than non-religious individuals.[86] There is substantial research suggesting that religious people are happier and less stressed.[87][88] Surveys by Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center and the Pew Organization conclude that spiritually committed people are twice as likely to report being "very happy" than the least religiously committed people.[89] An analysis of over 200 social studies contends that "high religiousness predicts a rather lower risk of depression and drug abuse and fewer suicide attempts, and more reports of satisfaction with sex life and a sense of well-being,"[90] and a review of 498 studies published in peer-reviewed journals concluded that a large majority of them showed a positive correlation between religious commitment and higher levels of perceived well-being and self-esteem and lower levels of hypertension, depression, and clinical delinquency.[91][vague][92] Studies by Keith Ward show that overall religion is a positive contributor to mental health,[93] and a meta-analysis of 34 recent studies published between 1990 and 2001 also found that religiosity has a salutary relationship with psychological adjustment, being related to less psychological distress, more life satisfaction, and better self-actualization.[94] A 2009 working paper by Andrew E. Clark and Orsolya Lelkes based on surveys from 90,000 people in 26 European countries found that "[one's own] religious behaviour is positively correlated with individual life satisfaction." and furthermore that greater overall "religiosity" in a region also correlates positively with "individual life satisfaction" on both the religious and non-religious population. The reverse was also found to be true: a large "atheist" (non-religious) population "has negative spillover effects" for both the religious and non-religious members of the population.[95] Finally, a recent systematic review of 850 research papers on the topic concluded that "the majority of well-conducted studies found that higher levels of religious involvement are positively associated with indicators of psychological well-being (life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, and higher morale) and with less depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, drug/alcohol use/abuse."[96]

However, as of 2001, most of those studies were conducted within the United States.[97] According to a 2007 paper by Liesbeth Snoep in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there is no significant correlation between religiosity and individual happiness in Denmark and the Netherlands, countries that have lower rates of religion than the United States.[98] Further, these studies do not differentiate between the non-religious and those who are atheist or agnostic.[citation needed] So while it may be that the larger group of non-religious as less satisfied, etc., than the religious, they do not define whether those who have a strong commitment to atheism are just as unsatisfied as those who are simply uncommitted.

Harm to society

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.
Steven Weinberg, Conference on Cosmic Design (April 1999)[99]

Some aspects of religion are criticized on the basis that they damage society as a whole. Critics such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins cite religiously inspired or justified violence, resistance to social change, attacks on science, repression of women, and homophobia.[100]

Most religions hold their teachings or revelations to be those that are the closest to the universal truths and those of other religions to be further from, or more often, in direct contradiction with these truths. Critics of this worldview[who?] claim that this monopoly of universal truths leads, inevitably, to a very ingrained "us vs. them" group solidarity and mentality (often referred to as moral superiority) which, to a wide range of extents, dehumanise or demonise individuals outside the particular faith as "not fully human", or in some way less worthy and less deserving of rights and regard. Results can, based on the fanaticism of this belief, vary from mild discrimination to outright genocide.[101]

One study[102] has shown that there is a direct correlation between religiosity and societal dysfunction, including homicide, sexual disease, teenage pregnancy and marital problems. Data for this study was obtained from approximately 23,000 people in almost all (17) of the developed democracies. While the data was multi-national, further evidence of religion's effect on societal health was concluded from regional differences in the United States. According to paleontologist Gregory S. Paul:

There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.

An analysis published later in the same journal contends that a number of methodological problems undermine any findings or conclusions to be taken from Paul's research.[103]

Holy war and religious terrorism

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

Critics such as Hitchens and Dawkins say that religions do tremendous harm to society in three ways: [23][page needed][24][page needed]

  • Religions sometimes use war, violence, and terrorism to promote their religious goals
  • Religious leaders contribute to secular wars and terrorism by endorsing or supporting the violence
  • Religious fervor is exploited by secular leaders to support war and terrorism

Examples of religion-based wars include the Mideast conflict between Israel and neighboring Muslim countries, the Crusades, The Troubles in Northern Ireland, French Wars of Religion, European wars of religion, the Taiping Rebellion, Islamic Jihad, the Second Sudanese Civil War, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947, the Sri Lankan Civil War, and Jewish-Roman Wars.[citation needed]

Examples of religion-based violence and terrorism include the Mormon-led Mountain Meadows massacre and Muslim-led attacks such as the September 11, 2001 attacks, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the 2005 London bombings, and the Bali bombings. These attacks are carried out by those with very strong religious convictions. These acts of religious terrorism are seen by the terrorists as small skirmishes in the context of a much larger global religious war.[104] Although the causes of terrorism are complex, it may be that terrorists are partially reassured by their religious views that God is on their side and will reward them in heaven for punishing unbelievers.[105][106]

These conflicts are among the most difficult to resolve, particularly where both sides believe that God is on their side and has endorsed the moral righteousness of their claims.[105] One of the most infamous quotes associated with religious fanaticism was made in 1209 during the siege of Béziers, a Crusader asked the Papal Legate Arnaud Amalric how to tell Catholics from Cathars when the city was taken, to which Amalric replied: "Tuez-les tous; Dieu reconnaitra les siens," or "Kill them all; God will recognize his."[107]

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku considers religious terrorism as one of the main threats in humanity's evolution from a Type 0 to Type 1 civilization.[108]

Arguments against the harm of religious wars

Some argue that religious violence is mostly caused by misinterpretations of the relevant religions' ethical rules and a combination of non-religious factors.[109][110][111] Robert Pape argues that the news reports about suicide attacks are profoundly misleading: "There is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world's religions". After studying 315 suicide attacks carried out over the last two decades, he concludes that suicide bombers' actions stem from political conflict, not religion.[111] Michael A. Sheehan argues that many terrorist groups use religious and cultural terms to conceal political goals and gain popular support.[112] Terry Nardin suggests that religious terrorism does not differ in "character and causes, from political terrorism."[113] Mark Juergensmeyer argues that religion "does not ordinarily lead to violence.That happens only with the coalescence of a peculiar set of circumstances—political, social, and ideological—when religion becomes fused with violent expressions of social aspirations, personal pride, and movements for political change."[114]:10 and that the use of the term "terrorist" depends on whether or not the speaker believes the acts involved are warranted.[114]:9 Believers have also responded to atheists in these discussions by pointing to the widespread imprisonment and mass murder of individuals under atheist states in the twentieth century:[115][116][self-published source?][117]

And who can deny that Stalin and Mao, not to mention Pol Pot and a host of others, all committed atrocities in the name of a Communist ideology that was explicitly atheistic? Who can dispute that they did their bloody deeds by claiming to be establishing a 'new man' and a religion-free utopia? These were mass murders performed with atheism as a central part of their ideological inspiration, they were not mass murders done by people who simply happened to be atheist.

H. Allen Orr also attributed many of the historical religious violent activities to the secular and political roles that were performed by the church in the past and noted that the recent absence of religion among the government of modern communist nations did not lead to Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, or Joseph Stalin leading any less violently.[118] In response to some apologists who note that the lack of religion did not prevent many modern dictators from committing great acts of violence, Christopher Hitchens said: "it is interesting to find that people of faith now seek defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists."[119] Furthermore, Richard Dawkins, in response to Pope Benedict's accusations that atheism was responsible for "some 20th century atrocities" has replied: "how dare Ratzinger suggest that atheism has any connection whatsoever with their horrific deeds? Any more than Hitler and Stalin's non-belief in leprechauns or unicorns.... There is no logical pathway from atheism to wickedness."[120]

Suppression of scientific progress

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition

John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, authors of the conflict thesis, have argued that when a religion offers a complete set of answers to the problems of purpose, morality, origins, or science, it often discourages exploration of those areas by suppressing curiosity, denies its followers a broader perspective, and can prevent social, moral and scientific progress. Examples of scientific suppression by the Roman Catholic Church include the trial of Galileo for arguing that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and the execution of scientist and philosopher Giordano Bruno.

In more recent time, many debates have arisen that follow a pattern of faith versus reason, in particular the rise of fundamentalist and bible literalist opposition to science and liberal democracy. Examples include the creation-evolution controversy, and controversies over the use of birth control, the separation of church and state, opposition to research into embryonic stem cells, or theological objections to vaccination and anesthesia.[121][122][123][124][125]

During the 19th century what scholars today call the historical conflict thesis developed. According to this model, any interaction between religion and science must inevitably lead to open hostility, with religion usually taking the part of the aggressor against new scientific ideas.[126] The historical conflict thesis was a popular historiographical approach in the history of science during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but its original form is almost entirely discarded by scholars today.[127][128][129] Despite that, conflict theory remains a popular view among the general public,[130] and has been publicized by the success of books such as The God Delusion.

Historians of science including John Hedley Brooke and Ronald Numbers consider the "religion vs. science" concept an oversimplification, and prefer to take a more nuanced view of the subject.[130][131] These historians cite, for example, the Galileo affair[132] and the Scopes trial,[133] and assert that these were not purely instances of conflict between science and religion; personal and political factors also weighed heavily in the development of each. In addition, some historians contend that religious organizations figure prominently in the broader histories of many sciences, with many of the scientific minds until the professionalization of scientific enterprise (in the 19th century) being clergy and other religious thinkers.[134][135][136] Some historians contend that many scientific developments, such as Kepler's laws[137] and the 19th century reformulation of physics in terms of energy,[138] were explicitly driven by religious ideas.

Suppression of art and literature

Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie
Former site of one of the Buddhas of Bamyan

Some religions have destroyed important artistic works and cultural or religious artifacts. The Taliban destroyed the Bamyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 in the name of Islam. Catholic priest Diego de Landa almost single handedly destroyed all knowledge of the Mayan hieroglyphs, with the desire to wipe out the Mayan religion. During the English civil war, Parliamentarian soldiers destroyed two of the Eleanor Crosses, one at Cheapside in London and another in Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire, as they were viewed to be relics of the Catholic faith to which, as Puritans, they were opposed.

In 1989, Muslim religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious edict condemning author Salman Rushdie to death for the publication of The Satanic Verses.[139]

In 2005, many Muslims protested against the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammad.

Muslims in Bangladesh issued a fatwa (religious decree) calling for the death of poet and author Taslima Nasrin because of the women's rights issues raised in her books, particularly her novel Lajja.[140]


A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.

Nobel Peace laureate, Muslim, and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi has criticized dogmatic Islam as morally deficient, arguing that it elevates to moral status many ancient and ill-informed rules that may have been designed for reasons of hygiene, politics, or other reasons in a bygone era.[142][verification needed] An example of this would be the idea that women and men must be kept separate, or that women who do not cover themselves up modestly have tendencies for immorality, or are in some way responsible for sexual assault.[143][144]

Dawkins contends that theistic religions devalue human compassion and morality. In his view, the Bible contains many injunctions against following one's conscience over scripture, and positive actions are supposed to originate not from compassion, but from the fear of punishment.[24] Religious institutions typically declare they have special knowledge of absolute morality and invoke this in order to hinder debates on many issues such as stem cell research, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage.[124][145]

Treatment of homosexuals

A Westboro Baptist Church picket in Northlake, Illinois, US on November 29, 2005
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
Leviticus 20:13|KJV

Many major religions, most prominently traditional Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Orthodox Judaism, consider homosexuality immoral. Singer Elton John said organized religion promotes the hatred of homosexuals: "I think religion has always tried to turn hatred towards gay people... Organized religion does not seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate."[146]

In the United States, conservative Christian groups such as the Christian Legal Society and the Alliance Defense Fund have filed numerous lawsuits against public universities, aimed at overturning policies that protect homosexuals from discrimination and hate speech. These groups argue that such policies infringe their right to freely exercise religion as guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.[147]

Homosexuality is illegal in most Muslim countries, and in many of these countries carries the death penalty. In July 2005, two Iranian men, aged sixteen and eighteen, were publicly hanged for homosexuality, causing an international outcry. Human rights organisations estimate that hundreds of people have been executed for homosexuality by Iranian authorities since the 1979 revolution.[148]

However, many liberal religious groups, and particularly most New Age religions, are accepting of homosexuals and do not regard their behavior as sinful, in particular: Progressive Judaism, Neopaganism, Wicca, Raëlism, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada,[149] the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, Moravian Church,[149] Haitian Voodoo, Unitarian Universalism, and the Metropolitan Community Church, which was established almost specifically for this purpose.


Cross often used by Ku Klux Klan to intimidate minorities

Religion has been used by some as justification for advocating racism. The Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity movement, Mormon leaders, and some Post-Medieval Theologians[who?] have made claims that white people are closer to God than other races. Religious terrorist organizations such as the forenamed Ku Klux Klan, Kach and Kahane Chai and others also hold ostensibly racist views.[150][151]

The LDS Church excluded blacks from the priesthood in the church, from 1860 to 1978.[152] Most Fundamentalist Mormon sects within the Latter Day Saint movement, rejected the LDS Church’s 1978 decision to allow African Americans to hold the priesthood, and continue to deny activity in the church due to race.[153] Due to these beliefs, in its Spring 2005 "Intelligence Report", the Southern Poverty Law Center named the FLDS Church to its "hate group" listing[154] because of the church's teachings on race, which include a fierce condemnation of interracial relationships.

On the other hand, many Christians have made efforts toward establishing racial equality, contributing to the Civil Rights Movement.[155] The African American Review sees as important the role Christian revivalism in the black church played in the Civil Rights Movement.[156] Martin Luther King, Jr., an ordained Baptist minister, was a leader of the American Civil Rights Movement and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a Christian Civil Rights organization.[157]

Treatment of women

In some Muslim countries, women wear hijabs or niqabs that conceal almost all of their bodies.

Critics[who?] say that religions often treat women in a discriminatory fashion, given them status inferior to men, depriving them of opportunities, endorsing excessive punishments, and using torture and executions as a manner of subjugating them.

An example of such criticism is the treatment of women in modern Islam, such as the required wearing of a burqa in some sects, or denying women permission to drive cars.

Critics[who?] also claim that Islam authorizes the punishment of female rape victims, citing a Saudi Arabian case where a rape victim was sentenced to receive 90 lashes because she was in a car with a man that was not her relative.[158]

Critics including Hitchens and the United Nations also say that Islam is used to justify unnecessary and usually harmful female genital modification and mutilation, when the purposes range from depriving them of sexual satisfaction to discourage adultery, insuring they are still a virgin to their husbands, or falsely giving the appearance that they are still a virgin.[85][159]

Witch hunts

Another example is the use of witch trials by the Christian churches from 1480 through 1800. These trials, often resulting in torture or death of the alleged witch, were based on the Old Testament in the Exodus 22:18, which prescribes "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live". Critics[who?] say that these trials were unfair, and that witchcraft was often not in evidence, and that the trials were generally used to punish assertive or independent women, such as midwives,[160] or activists.[161]

Cruelty to animals

PETA has criticized the Jewish practice of kosher slaughter, which they argue is extremely painful and frightening for the animals, because it involves "shackling and hoisting" the animal, slitting the animal's throat, and letting it bleed to death.[162] Islamic halal techniques have been similarly criticized.[citation needed]

Arguments against religion promoting immoral behavior

Some scientific studies show that the degree of religiosity is generally found to be associated with higher ethical attitudes[163][164][165][166] — for example, surveys suggesting a positive connection between faith and altruism.[167] Although a recent study by Gregory S. Paul published in the Journal of Religion and Society argues for a positive correlation between the degree of public religiosity in a society and certain measures of dysfunction,[168] an analysis published later in the same journal contends that a number of methodological problems undermine any findings or conclusions to be taken from the research.[103]

Survey research suggests that believers do tend to hold different views than non-believers on a variety of social, ethical and moral questions. According to a 2003 survey conducted in the United States by The Barna Group, a Christian-affiliated research organization, those who described themselves as believers were less likely than those describing themselves as atheists or agnostics to consider the following behaviors morally acceptable: cohabitating with someone of the opposite sex outside of marriage, enjoying sexual fantasies, having an abortion, sexual relationships outside of marriage, gambling, looking at pictures of nudity or explicit sexual behavior, getting drunk, and "having a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex."[169]

Moreover, a comprehensive study by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam found that religious people are more charitable than their irreligious counterparts.[170][171] The study revealed that forty percent of worship service attending Americans volunteer regularly to help the poor and elderly as opposed to 15% of Americans who never attend services.[170] Moreover, religious individuals are more likely than non-religious individuals to volunteer for school and youth programs (36% vs. 15%), a neighborhood or civic group (26% vs. 13%), and for health care (21% vs. 13%).[170]


Religious apologists often respond that those guilty of such actions are merely misguided extremists and don't represent mainstream religion, or that such things are only exceptions and that, by and large, religion is a positive civilizing influence on society.[citation needed] Atheists such as Hector Avalos counter that this may be a No true Scotsman fallacy in that apologists may decide which believers are considered "mainstream" and which are "extremist" on a basis that favors their position.[172]

In response to an article that correlates religiosity in society with dysfunctional behaviors,[102] an analysis published later in the same journal contends that a number of methodological problems undermine any findings or conclusions to be taken from the research.[103] In the same issue, Gary Jensen builds on and refines Paul's study.[173] His conclusion, after carrying out elaborate multivariate statistical studies, is that a complex relationship exists between religiosity and homicide with some dimensions of religiosity encouraging homicide and other dimensions discouraging it." Meanwhile, other studies seem to show positive links in the relationship between religiosity and moral behavior[164][165][166] — for example, surveys suggesting a positive connection between faith and altruism.[174] Other research in criminology indicates an inverse relationship between religion and crime,[175] with many studies establishing this beneficial connection (though some[who?] say it is a modest one).[176] Indeed, a meta-analysis of 60 studies on religion and crime concluded, "religious behaviors and beliefs exert a moderate deterrent effect on individuals' criminal behavior".[177]

Theodore Beale responds to criticisms that religion harms society by arguing that religious individuals tend to be more generous and more likely to have children.[86] Religious belief appears to be the strongest predictor of charitable giving.[178][179][180][181][182] One study found that average charitable giving in 2000 by religious individuals ($2,210) was over three times that of secular individuals ($642). Giving to non-religious charities by religious individuals was $88 higher. Religious individuals are also more likely to volunteer time, donate blood, and give back money when accidentally given too much change.[180] A 2007 study by The Barna Group found that "active-faith" individuals (those who had attended a church service in the past week) reported that they had given on average $1,500 in 2006, while "no-faith" individuals reported that they had given on average $200. "Active-faith" adults claimed to give twice as much to non-church-related charities as "no-faith" individuals claimed to give. They were also more likely to report that they were registered to vote, that they volunteered, that they personally helped someone who was homeless, and to describe themselves as "active in the community."[183]

Corrupt purposes of leaders

Many criticisms of religion focus on the purposes of the leaders of the religions, rather than on the religious doctrines. Critics[who?] point out that many religions endow their leaders with immoral or corrupt authority, and that leaders often abuse the power for financial gain, or increased access to sexual partners, or to oppress minorities or enemies. Critics[who?] claim that religious leaders have often supported un-democratic and oppressive power structures, such as the absolutist monarchies of Europe, or the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.[citation needed]

Corrupt or immoral leaders

Caricature of Mormon leader Brigham Young's wives

Critics[who?] point out that several religions were founded by individuals who appeared to be using the religion for immoral or corrupt purposes, such as financial gain, access to power, or justifying multiple wives. Examples given by critics include Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who owned 90 Rolls Royce cars, cult leader David Koresh, and Mormon leaders Joseph Smith who had about 27 wives and Brigham Young who had about 57 wives.[184] Roman Catholic pope Alexander VI (of the Borgia family) was noted for his many mistresses, syphilis and nepotism. Evangelical Christian pastor Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud for improperly using large amounts of money from his congregation for personal use.

Authoritarian political power

The term "authoritarian" is used to describe an organization, an institution, or a state that enforces strong and sometimes oppressive measures against those within its sphere of influence, generally without any attempt at gaining their consent and often not allowing criticism of its policies.

In this sense, some religious organizations can be seen as authoritarian, insofar as their goal is to define themselves as the ultimate authority by which the law of the land is granted.[dubious ] As this divine source of authority is not to be criticized by non-religious arguments, it is the antithesis to secularism.[dubious ] A country where the above has been achieved is called a theocracy.[185]

Some religions also teach that there was, or is, a human with divinity or touched by divine guidance, and who is therefore infallible: for example Jesus, Muhammad and, in certain circumstances, the Pope.

Divine mandate used for political gain

The ancient egyptians believed that upon taking the throne, the pharaoh became the earthly embodiment of a god. They believed that in his role as both man and god, he was responsible for preserving not only the empire, but the universe itself.[186]

Until the end of World War II the Emperor of Japan held a similar status,[187] and deification of Roman emperors was common practice following the reign of Augustus.[188] Systems such as this equated political opposition to heresy, and served to support existing power structures by suppressing dissent.[citation needed] On New Year's Day 1946, Emperor Hirohito (formally) declined claims of divinity with the Humanity Declaration.


The term dominionism is often used to describe a political movement among fundamentalist Christians. Critics view dominionism as an attempt to improperly impose Christianity as the national faith of the United States. It emerged in the late 1980s inspired by the book, film and lecture series, "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" by Francis A. Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop.[189] Schaeffer's views influenced conservatives like Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, John W. Whitehead, and although they represent different theological and political ideas, dominionists believe they have a Christian duty to take "control of a sinful secular society", either by putting fundamentalist Christians in office, or by introducing biblical law into the secular sphere.[121][190][191] Social scientists have used the word "dominionism" to refer to adherence to Dominion Theology[192][193][194] as well as to the influence in the broader Christian Right of ideas inspired by Dominion Theology.[192]

In the early 1990s, sociologist Sara Diamond[195][196] and journalist Frederick Clarkson[197][198] defined dominionism as a movement that, while including Dominion Theology and Christian Reconstructionism as subsets, is much broader in scope, extending to much of the Christian Right.[199] Beginning in 2004 with essayist Katherine Yurica,[200][201][202] a group of authors including journalist Chris Hedges[203][204][205] Marion Maddox,[206] James Rudin,[207] Sam Harris,[208] and the group TheocracyWatch[209] began applying the term to a broader spectrum of people than have sociologists such as Diamond.

Full adherents to reconstructionism are few and marginalized among conservative Christians.[210][page needed][211][212] The terms "dominionist" and "dominionism" are rarely used for self-description, and their usage has been attacked from several quarters. Chip Berlet wrote that "some critics of the Christian Right have stretched the term dominionism past its breaking point."[213] Sara Diamond wrote that "[l]iberals' writing about the Christian Right's take-over plans has generally taken the form of conspiracy theory."[214] Journalist Anthony Williams charged that its purpose is "to smear the Republican Party as the party of domestic Theocracy, facts be damned."[215] Stanley Kurtz labeled it "conspiratorial nonsense," "political paranoia," and "guilt by association,"[216] and decried Hedges' "vague characterizations" that allow him to "paint a highly questionable picture of a virtually faceless and nameless 'Dominionist' Christian mass."[217] Kurtz also complained about a perceived link between average Christian evangelicals and extremism such as Christian Reconstructionism:

The notion that conservative Christians want to reinstitute slavery and rule by genocide is not just crazy, it's downright dangerous. The most disturbing part of the Harper's cover story (the one by Chris Hedges) was the attempt to link Christian conservatives with Hitler and fascism. Once we acknowledge the similarity between conservative Christians and fascists, Hedges appears to suggest, we can confront Christian evil by setting aside 'the old polite rules of democracy.' So wild conspiracy theories and visions of genocide are really excuses for the Left to disregard the rules of democracy and defeat conservative Christians — by any means necessary.[216]

See also

Criticism of specific religions

Notable critics of religion


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