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Criticism of religion

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Title: Criticism of religion  
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Subject: Atheism, Nontheism, Demographics of atheism, Secularism, Agnosticism
Collection: Antireligion, Criticism of Religion, Irreligion
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Criticism of religion

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

Religious criticism has a long history. It goes at least as far back as the 5th century BCE in ancient Greece with Diagoras "the atheist" of Melos, and the 1st century BCE in ancient Rome with Titus Lucretius Carus' De Rerum Natura. It continues to the present day with the advent of New Atheism, represented by authors and journalists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Alternatively, "religious criticism" has been used by the literary critic Harold Bloom to describe a mode of religious discussion that is secular but not inherently anti-religion. Criticism of religion is complicated by the fact that there exist multiple definitions and concepts of religion in different cultures and languages. With the existence of diverse categories of religion such as monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, nontheism and diverse specific religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, and many others; it is not always clear to whom the criticisms are aimed at or to what extent they are applicable to other religions.

Critics often consider religion to be outdated, harmful to the individual, harmful to society, an impediment to the progress of science, a source of immoral acts or customs, and a political tool for social control.


  • History 1
  • Criticism of religious concepts 2
    • Conflicting claims of "one true faith" 2.1
    • Lack of permanence 2.2
  • Explanations as non-divine in origin 3
    • Social construct 3.1
    • Narratives to provide comfort and meaning 3.2
      • Opium of the people 3.2.1
    • Viruses of the mind 3.3
    • Mental illness or delusion 3.4
    • Immature stage of societal development 3.5
  • Harm to individuals 4
    • Inadequate medical care 4.1
    • Jerusalem syndrome 4.2
    • Issues related to sexuality 4.3
    • Honor killings and stoning 4.4
    • Blood sacrifice 4.5
    • Genital modification and mutilation 4.6
    • Counterarguments 4.7
  • Harm to society 5
    • Holy war and religious terrorism 5.1
      • Arguments against religion being a significant cause of violence 5.1.1
    • Suppression of scientific progress 5.2
    • Suppression of art and literature 5.3
    • Counterarguments to religion as harmful to society 5.4
  • Morality 6
    • Children 6.1
    • Homosexuals 6.2
    • Racism 6.3
    • Women 6.4
    • Animals 6.5
  • Corrupt purposes of leaders 7
    • Corrupt or immoral leaders 7.1
    • Dominionism 7.2
  • See also 8
    • Criticism of specific religions 8.1
    • Notable critics of religion 8.2
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


The 1st century BCE Roman poet, Titus Lucretius Carus, in his work 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] however, he did believe in gods.[4] He was not against religion in and of itself, but against traditional religion which he saw as superstition for teaching that gods interfered with the world.[5]

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."[6] To Machiavelli, religion was merely a tool, useful for a ruler wishing to manipulate public opinion.[7]

In the 18th century Voltaire was a deist and was strongly critical of religious intolerance. Voltaire complained about Jews killed by other Jews for worshiping a golden calf and similar actions, he also condemned how Christians killed other Christians over religious differences and how Christians killed Native Americans for not being baptised. Voltaire claimed the real reason for these killings was that Christians wanted to plunder the wealth of those killed. Voltaire was also critical of Muslim intolerance.[8]

Also in the 18th century David Hume criticised teleological arguments for religion. Hume claimed that natural explanations for the order in the universe were reasonable, see Design argument. Demonstrating the unsoundness of the philosophical basis for religion was an important aim of Hume's writings.[9]

In the early 21st century the New Atheists, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, were prominent as critics of religion.[10][11]

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."[12]

Some criticisms on monotheistic religions have been:

  • Sometimes conflict with science.[13]
  • Requiring behaviors that are not sensible (i.e. Old Testament prohibition against wearing garments of mixed fabrics, or punishing children of guilty parents).[14]
  • Revelations may conflict internally (i.e. discrepancies in the Bible among the four Gospels of the New Testament).[15][16][17]

Conflicting claims of "one true faith"

In the context of theistic belief, Stephen Roberts[18] has claimed that he dismisses all gods in the same way others dismiss all other gods.[19]

Lack of permanence

Opsopaus and Hitchens note obsolete religions — which no longer have active adherents — are evidence that religions are not everlasting.[20] Including Greek mythology, Millerism, Roman mythology, Sabbatai Sevi, and Norse mythology.[21]

Explanations as non-divine in origin

Social construct

Christopher Hitchens, journalist and author of God is not Great

Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens have asserted that theist religions and their scriptures are not divinely inspired, but man made to fulfill social, biological, and political needs.[22][23][24] Dawkins balances the benefits of religious beliefs (mental solace, community-building, promotion of virtuous behavior) against the drawbacks.[25] Such criticisms treat religion as a social construct[26] and thus just another human ideology.

Narratives to provide comfort and meaning

Daniel Dennett has argued that, 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.[27]

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).[28][29] Given current understanding of the physical world, where human knowledge has increased dramatically; Hitchens, Dawkins, and French atheist philosopher Michel Onfray contend that continuing to hold on to these belief systems is irrational and no longer useful.[24][25][30]

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.
Karl Marx[31]

According to Karl Marx, the father of "scientific socialism", religion is a tool used 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. In this perspective, Marx saw religion as escapism.[31]

Marx also viewed the Christian doctrine of

  • A Historical Outline of Modern Religious Criticism in Western Civilization
  • The Science of Religion by Gregory S. Paul
  • The Poverty of Theistic Morality by Adolf Grünbaum
  • Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams

External links

  • Ellens, J. Harold (2002). The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Praeger Publishers.  

Further reading

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  2. ^  
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  4. ^ "Lucretius – Stanford Encyclopedia". Retrieved 19 April 2012. 
  5. ^ Lucretius (1992). On the Nature of Things Translated by W.H.D. Rouse. Harvard University Press. p. 8.  
  6. ^ Middlemore, S. G. C.; Burckhardt, Jacob; Murray, Peter; Burke, Peter (1990). The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Penguin Classics.  
  7. ^ Machiavelli, Nicolo (1532). "The Prince". Retrieved 2007-08-10. 
  8. ^ "Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary". Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  9. ^ "Hume on Religion". Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  10. ^ Bailey, David. "What are the merits of recent claims by atheistic scholars that modern science proves religion to be false and vain?". 
  11. ^ "The New Atheists". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  12. ^ "The Vernon Atheist Display," Press Release, CT Valley Atheists, December 17, 2007 . Retrieved October 1, 2008.
  13. ^ White, Andrew D. (1993). A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom : Two volumes. Prometheus Books.  
  14. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (2007). God is Not Great. Random House, Inc. p. 99.  
  15. ^ Bart Ehrman; Misquoting Jesus, 166
  16. ^ Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: its transmission, corruption, and restoration, pp. 199–200
  17. ^  
  18. ^ "History of The Quote". Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  19. ^ Narciso, Dianna (2003). Like Rolling Uphill: realizing the honesty of atheism. Coral Springs, FL: Llumina Press. p. 6.  
  20. ^ Opsopaus, John. The Art of Haruspicy. 
  21. ^ Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great. pp. 169–173. 
  22. ^  
  23. ^  
  24. ^ a b c  
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  27. ^ Dennett, Daniel Clement (2006). Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Viking Adult.  
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  37. ^ Dawkins's God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, p.126
  38. ^ Dawkins's God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, p.127
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  147. ^ As is stated in: Doris C. Chu (2007). Religiosity and Desistance From Drug Use" Criminal Justice and Behavior 2007; 34; 661 originally published online Mar 7, 2007; doi:10.1177/0093854806293485
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    • Chard-Wierschem, D. (1998). In pursuit of the "true" relationship: A longitudinal study of the effects of religiosity on delinquency and substance abuse. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation.
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  151. ^ e.g. a survey by Robert Putnam showing that membership of religious groups was positively correlated with membership of voluntary organizations
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  154. ^ Campbell, David; Putnam, Robert (2010-11-14). "'"Religious people are 'better neighbors.  
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  157. ^ Will, George F. "Bleeding Hearts but Tight Fists", Washington Post, 27 March 2008; Page A17
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  197. ^ Polly Toynbee. "Polly Toynbee: A woman's supreme right over her own body and destiny is in jeopardy - Comment is free - The Guardian". the Guardian. Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
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  225. ^ Clarkson, Frederick (1997). Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage.  
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  244. ^ Kurtz, Stanley (28 April 2005). "Scary Stuff". National Review Online. Retrieved 2007-10-06. 


Notable critics of religion

Criticism of specific religions

See also

Full adherents to reconstructionism are few and marginalized among conservative Christians.[237][238][239] 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."[240] Sara Diamond wrote that "[l]iberals' writing about the Christian Right's take-over plans has generally taken the form of conspiracy theory."[241] Journalist Anthony Williams charged that its purpose is "to smear the Republican Party as the party of domestic Theocracy, facts be damned."[242] Stanley Kurtz labeled it "conspiratorial nonsense," "political paranoia," and "guilt by association,"[243] and decried Hedges' "vague characterizations" that allow him to "paint a highly questionable picture of a virtually faceless and nameless 'Dominionist' Christian mass."[244] Kurtz also complained about a perceived link between average Christian evangelicals and extremism such as Christian Reconstructionism.[243]

In the early 1990s, sociologist Sara Diamond[222][223] and journalist Frederick Clarkson[224][225] 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.[226] Beginning in 2004 with essayist Katherine Yurica,[227][228][229] a group of authors including journalist Chris Hedges[230][231][232] Marion Maddox,[233] James Rudin,[234] Sam Harris,[235] and the group TheocracyWatch[236] began applying the term to a broader spectrum of people than have sociologists such as Diamond.

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.[216] 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.[123][217][218] Social scientists have used the word "dominionism" to refer to adherence to Dominion Theology[219][220][221] as well as to the influence in the broader Christian Right of ideas inspired by Dominion Theology.[219]


Hitchens has noted some leaders who have abused their positions for financial gains such as the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who owned 90 Rolls Royce cars, cult leader David Koresh, Joseph Smith who had about 27 wives, and Brigham Young who had about 57 wives.[215]

Caricature of Mormon leader Brigham Young's wives at his death

Corrupt or immoral leaders

Corrupt purposes of leaders

According to the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), Halal and Kosher practices should be banned because when animals are not stunned before death, they suffer needles pain for up to 2 minutes, however, Muslims and Jews argue that loss of blood from slash to the throat renders the animals unconscious pretty quickly.[214]

Other forms of ritual slaughter, such as Islamic ritual slaughter, have also come under controversy. Logan Scherer, writing for PETA, said that animals sacrificed according to Islamic law can not be stunned before they are killed.[212] Muslims are only allowed to eat meat that has been killed according to Sharia law, and they say that Islamic law on ritual slaughter is designed to reduce the pain and distress that the animal suffers.[213]

Supporters of kosher slaughter counter that Judaism requires the practice precisely because it is considered humane.[209] Research conducted by Temple Grandin and Joe M. Regenstein in 1994 concluded that, practiced correctly with proper restraint systems, kosher slaughter results in little pain and suffering, and notes that behavioral reactions to the incision made during kosher slaughter are less than those to noises such as clanging or hissing, inversion or pressure during restraint.[210] Those who practice and subscribe religiously and philosophically to Jewish vegetarianism disagree, stating that such slaughter is not required, while a number, including medieval scholars of Judaism such as Joseph Albo and Isaac Arama, regard vegetarianism as a moral ideal, not just out of a concern for animal welfare but also the slaughterer.[211]

Kosher slaughter has historically attracted criticism from non-Jews as allegedly being inhumane and unsanitary,[206] in part as an antisemitic canard that eating ritually slaughtered meat caused degeneration,[207] and in part out of economic motivation to remove Jews from the meat industry.[206] Sometimes, however, these criticisms were directed at Judaism as a religion. In 1893, animal advocates campaigning against kosher slaughter in Aberdeen attempted to link cruelty with Jewish religious practice.[208] In the 1920s, Polish critics of kosher slaughter claimed that the practice actually had no basis in Scripture.[206] In contrast, Jewish authorities argue that the slaughter methods are based directly upon Genesis IX:3, and that "these laws are binding on Jews today."[209]


Christian religious figures have been involved in the Middle Ages and early modern period Witch trials, which were generally used to punish assertive or independent women, such as midwives, since witchcraft was often not in evidence,[204] or activists.[205]

Feminist Julie Bindel argues that religions encourage the domination of men over women, and that Islam promotes the submission of women to their husbands, and encourages practices such as child marriage. She wrote that religion "promotes inequality between men and women", that Islam's message for a woman includes that "she will be subservient to her husband and devote her life to pleasing him", and that "Islam's obsession with virginity and childbirth has led to gender segregation and early marriage.[201] Another feminist criticism of religion is the portrayal of God as an omnipotent, perfect power, where this power is one of domination, which is persistently associated with the characteristics of ideal masculinity.[202] Sheila Jeffreys argues that "Religion gives authority to traditional, patriarchal beliefs about the essentially subordinate nature of women and their naturally separate roles, such as the need for women to be confined to the private world of the home and family, that women should be obedient to their husbands, that women's sexuality should be modest and under the control of their menfolk, and that women should not use contraception or abortion to limit their childbearing. The practice of such ancient beliefs interferes profoundly with women's abilities to exercise their human rights".[203]

One criticism of religion is that it contributes to unequal relations in marriage, creating norms which subordinate the wife to the husband. The word בעל (ba`al), Hebrew for husband, used throughout the Bible, is synonymous with owner and master.[198] Hitchens argued that the commandment of Thou shalt not covet is sexist because it "throws in 'wife' along with the other property, animal, human, and material, of the neighbor" and considers the wife as "chattel".[199] Hitchens pointed out that divorce in Ireland was only legalized in 1996, and argued that the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland preferred for women to be trapped with violent husbands, rather than to change its dogma.[200]

According to Polly Toynbee, religion interferes with physical autonomy, and fosters negative attitudes towards women's bodies. Toynbee writes that "Women's bodies are always the issue - too unclean to be bishops, and dangerous enough to be covered up by Islam and mikvahed by Judaism".[197]

Christianity has been criticized for painting women as sinful, untrustful, deceiving, and desiring to seduce and incite men into sexual sin.[193] Katharine M. Rogers argues that Christianity is misogynistic, and that the "dread of female seduction" can be found in St. Paul's epistles.[194] K. K. Ruthven argues that the "legacy of Christian misogyny was consolidated by the so-called 'Fathers' of the Church, like Tertullian, who thought a woman was not only 'the gateway of the devil' but also 'a temple built over a sewer'."[195] Jack Holland argues the concept of fall of man is misogynistic as "a myth that blames woman for the ills and sufferings of mankind".[196]

According to Phyllis Chesler, Islam is connected to violence against women, especially in the form of honor killings. She rejects the argument that honor killings are not related to Islam, and claims that while fundamentalists of all religions place restrictions on women, in Islam not only are these restrictions harsher, but Islam also reacts more violently when these rules are broken.[192]

Islamic laws have been criticized by human rights organizations for exposing women to mistreatment and violence, preventing women from reporting rape, and contributing to the discrimination of women.[189] Hitchens and the [191]


[188] On the other hand, many Christians have made efforts toward establishing racial equality, contributing to the

The LDS Church excluded blacks from the priesthood in the church, from 1860 to 1978.[183] 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.[184] Due to these beliefs, in its Spring 2005 "Intelligence Report", the Southern Poverty Law Center named the FLDS Church to its "hate group" listing[185] because of the church's teachings on race, which include a fierce condemnation of interracial relationships.

Religion has been used by some as justification for advocating racism. The Christian Identity movement has been associated with racism.[181] There are arguments, however, that these positions may be as much reflections of contemporary social views as of what has been called scientific racism.[182]

Burning cross often used by Ku Klux Klan to intimidate minorities


Homosexuality is illegal in most Muslim countries, and several of these countries impose the death penalty for homosexual behavior. In July 2005, two Iranian men, aged sixteen and eighteen, were publicly hanged for homosexuality, causing an international outcry.[180]

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.[179]

hatred of homosexuals.[177] Unlike many other religions, Hinduism does not view homosexuality as an issue.[178]

A Westboro Baptist Church picket in Northlake, Illinois, US on November 29, 2005


Latter Day Saint church founder Joseph Smith married girls as young as 13 and 14,[174] and other Latter Day Saints married girls as young as 10.[175] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints eliminated underaged marriages in the 19th century, but several branches of Mormonism continue the practice.[176]

The Seyaj Organization for the Protection of Children describes cases of a 10-year-old girl being married and raped in Yemen ([167][172] Yemen currently does not have a minimum age for marriage.[173]

[167] has permitted the child marriage of older men to girls as young as 9 years of age. Baptist pastor Jerry Vines has cited the age of one of Muhammad's wives, Aisha, to denounce him for having had sex with a nine-year-old, referring to Muhammad as a pedophile.[168]

Dawkins states that labeling children as "Muslim child" or "Catholic child" is unreasonable since children are not mature enough to decide major questions in life for themselves. In his view, no reasonable person would speak of a "Marxist child" or a "Tory child", for instance.[165] He suggests such labeling is not seen as controversial because of the "weirdly privileged status of religion".

In the 19th century, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that teaching some ideas to children at a young age could foster resistance to doubting those ideas later on.[163] Richard Dawkins maintains that the children of religious parents are often unfairly indoctrinated because they do not have yet sufficient maturity and knowledge to make their own conclusions.[164] Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins use the term child abuse to describe what they see as the harm inflicted on children by some religious upbringings.[165][166]


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.[25] Albert Einstein stated that no religious basis is needed in order to display ethical behavior.[162]


Religious belief appears to be the strongest predictor of charitable giving.[156][157][158][159][160] 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.[158] A 2007 study by the 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."[161]

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.[74] Moreover, a comprehensive study by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam found that religious people are more charitable than their irreligious counterparts.[153][154] 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.[153] 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%).[153] Other research has shown similar correlations between religiosity and giving.[155]

Some scientific studies show that the degree of religiosity is generally found to be associated with higher ethical attitudes[143][144][145][150] — for example, surveys suggesting a positive connection between faith and altruism.[151] 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, 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."[152]

One study notes that significant levels of social dysfunction are found in highly religious countries such as the US and that countries which have lower religiosity also tend to have lower levels of dysfunction.[140] In response, 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.[141] In the same issue, Gary Jensen builds on and refines Paul's study.[142] 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." Other studies show positive links in the relationship between religiosity and moral behavior among prisoners and the general population [143][144][145] — for example, surveys suggesting a positive connection between faith and altruism.[146] Other research in criminology indicates an inverse relationship between religion and crime,[147] with many studies establishing some degree of beneficial connections.[148] 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".[149]

Counterarguments to religion as harmful to society

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.[139]

In 1989, Muslim religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious edict condemning author Salman Rushdie to death for the publication of The Satanic Verses.[138]

Islam strongly forbids the music.[136] In February 2013, in India, Fatwa was released by a Mufti against a Girlband, claiming that "music is not good for society", and "All bad things happening in the Indian society are because of music."[137]

Suppression of art and literature

However, research on perceptions of science among the American public concludes that most religious groups see no general epistemological conflict with science or with the seeking out of scientific knowledge, although there may be epistemic or moral conflicts when scientists make counterclaims to religious tenets.[131][132] Even strict creationists tend to have very favorable views on science.[133] Also, cross-national studies, polled from 1981-2001, on views of science and religion have noted that countries with higher religiosity have stronger trust in science, whereas countries that are seen as more secular are more skeptical about the impact of science and technology.[134] Though the United States is a highly religious country compared to other advanced industrial countries, according to the National Science Foundation, public attitudes towards science are more favorable in the United States than Europe, Russia, and Japan.[133] A study on a national sample of US college students examined whether they viewed the science / religion relationship as reflecting primarily conflict, collaboration, or independence. The study concluded that the majority of undergraduates in both the natural and social sciences do not see conflict between science and religion. Another finding in the study was that it is more likely for students to move away from a conflict perspective to an independence or collaboration perspective than vice versa.[135]

Counterarguments against assumed conflict between the sciences and religions have been offered. For example, C. S. Lewis, a Christian, suggested that all religions, by definition, involve faith, or a belief in concepts that cannot be proven or disproven by the sciences. However, some religious beliefs have not been in line with views of the scientific community, for instance Young Earth creationism.[128] Though some who criticize religions subscribe to the conflict thesis, others do not. For example, Stephen Jay Gould agrees with C. S. Lewis and suggested that religion and science were non-overlapping magisteria.[129] Scientist Richard Dawkins has said that religious practitioners often do not believe in the view of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).[130]

Recent examples of tensions have been the creation-evolution controversy, controversies over the use of birth control, opposition to research into embryonic stem cells, or theological objections to vaccination, anesthesia, and blood transfusion.[123][124][125][126][127]

were explicitly driven by religious ideas. [122] and the 19th century reformulation of physics in terms of energy,[121]Kepler's laws Some historians contend that many scientific developments, such as [120][119][118] Historians of science including

During the 19th century the 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.[110] 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.[111][112][113] Despite that, conflict theory remains a popular view among the general public,[114] and has been publicized by the success of books such as The God Delusion.

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 cited in their writings include the trial of Galileo and Giordano Bruno's execution.

Suppression of scientific progress

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.[107] 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."[108] 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."[109]

Some argue that religious violence is mostly caused by misinterpretations of the relevant religions' ethical rules and a combination of non-religious factors.[98][99][100] 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.[100] Michael A. Sheehan argues that many terrorist groups use religious and cultural terms to conceal political goals and gain popular support.[101] Terry Nardin suggests that religious terrorism does not differ in "character and causes, from political terrorism."[102] 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."[103]:10 and that the use of the term "terrorist" depends on whether or not the speaker believes the acts involved are warranted.[103]: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:[104][105][106]

Arguments against religion being a significant cause of violence

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.[97]

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.[94] 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 own."[96]

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.[94][95]

  • Religions sometimes encourage war (Crusades, Jihad), 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

Hitchens and Dawkins say that religions do tremendous harm to society in three ways:[24] [25]

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

Holy war and religious terrorism

Hartung has claimed that major religious moral codes can lead to "us vs. them" group solidarity and mentality which can dehumanise or demonise individuals outside their group as "not fully human", or less worthy. Results can vary from mild discrimination to outright genocide.[92] A poll by The Guardian, a UK newspaper noted that 82% of the British people believe that religion is socially divisive and that this effect is harmful despite the observation that non-believers outnumber believers 2 to 1.[93]

Some aspects of religion are criticized on the basis that they damage society as a whole. Steven Weinberg, for example, states it takes religion to make good people do evil.[90] Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins cite religiously inspired or justified violence, resistance to social change, attacks on science, repression of women, and homophobia.[91]

Harm to society

However, as of 2001, most of those studies were conducted within the United States.[86] 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.[87] A cross-national investigation on subjective well-being has noted that, globally, religious people are usually happier than nonreligious people, though nonreligious people can also reach high levels of happiness.[88] The 2013 World Happiness Report mentions that once crude factors are taken into account, there are no differences in life satisfaction between religious and less religious countries, even though a meta analysis concludes that greater religiosity is mildly associated with fewer depressive symptoms and 75% of studies find at least some positive effect of religion on well-being.[89]

Responding in the book The Irrational Atheist to criticisms that religion is harmful, [77] 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,"[78] 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.[79][80] Surveys suggest a strong link between faith and altruism.[81] Studies by Keith Ward show that overall religion is a positive contributor to mental health,[82] 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.[83] Andrew E. Clark and Orsolya Lelkes surveyed 90,000 people in 26 European countries and found that "[one's own] religious behaviour is positively correlated with individual life satisfaction.", greater overall "religiosity" in a region also correlates positively with "individual life satisfaction". The reverse was 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.[84] 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."[85]


Hitchens claims that many religions endorse male circumcision and female genital cutting, which he views as genital mutilation, and as immoral, unhealthy, and unnecessary.[73]

Genital modification and mutilation

Hitchens claims that many religions endorse blood sacrifice, wherein innocent victims are killed or harmed to appease deities,[71] 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".[72]

Blood sacrifice

Until the early 2000s, stoning was a legal form of capital punishment in Iran. In 2002, the Iranian judiciary officially placed a moratorium on stoning.[67] In 2005, judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad stated, "in the Islamic republic, we do not see such punishments being carried out", further adding that if stoning sentences were passed by lower courts, they were overruled by higher courts and "no such verdicts have been carried out."[68] In 2008, the judiciary decided to fully scrap the punishment from the books in legislation submitted to parliament for approval.[69] In early 2013, Iranian parliament published official report about excluding stoning from penal code and it accused Western media for spreading "noisy propaganda" about the case.[70]

Stoning is a form of capital punishment whereby a group throws stones at a person until death ensues. As of September 2010, stoning is a punishment that is included in the laws in some countries including Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and some states in Nigeria[63] as punishment for zina al-mohsena ("adultery of married persons").[64] While stoning may not be codified in the laws of Afghanistan and Somalia, both countries have seen several incidents of stoning to death.[65][66]

Still occurring in some parts of the world, an honor killing is when a person is killed by family for bringing dishonor or shame upon the family.[60] While religions such as Islam are often blamed for such acts, Tahira Shaid Khan, a professor of women's issues at Aga Khan University, notes that there is nothing in the Qur'an that permits or sanctions honor killings.[61] Khan instead blames it on attitudes (across different classes, ethnic and religious groups) that view women as property with no rights of their own as the motivation for honor killings.[61] Khan also argues that this view results in violence against women and their being turned "into a commodity which can be exchanged, bought and sold".[62]

Honor killings and stoning

According to Christopher Hitchens, religion has opposed certain practices such as masturbation, or certain consensual sexual acts between adults that they see as "unnatural" and asked for their legal prohibition (see sodomy laws).[52]

Issues related to sexuality

During a period of 13 years (1980–1993) for which admissions to the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre in Jerusalem were analyzed, it was reported[56] 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.[57][58] The statements of these claims has however been disputed, with the arguments that experiencers of the Jerusalem syndrome already were mentally ill.[57][59]

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.[54][55]

Jerusalem syndrome

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.[53]

exorcism, by Goya

Inadequate medical care

Some have criticized the effects of adherence to dangerous practices such as self-sacrifice,[51] as well as unnatural restrictions on human behavior (such as teetotalism and sexual prohibitions) and claim that these result in mental and emotional trauma of fear and guilt.[52]

Harm to individuals

Philosopher [50]

Philosophy and Christian Art. W. Ridgway, 1878

Immature stage of societal development

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."[49]

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.[42][43][44] 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.[45] 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 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."[46] 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.[47] John Bradshaw has stated, "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."[48]

Richard Dawkins argues that religious belief often involves delusional behavior.[25] Others, such as Sam Harris, compare religion to mental illness, saying it "allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy."[41]

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

Mental illness or delusion

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?"[35] Alister McGrath has responded by arguing that "memes have no place in serious scientific reflection",[36] that there is strong evidence that such ideas are not spread by random processes, but by deliberate intentional actions,[37] that "evolution" of ideas is more Lamarckian than Darwinian,[38] and that there is no evidence (and certainly none in the essay) that epidemiological models usefully explain the spread of religious ideas.[39] McGrath also cites a metareview of 100 studies and argues that "if 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?"[40]

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.[33] He later used this concept in the essay "Viruses of the Mind" to explain the persistence of religious ideas in human culture.[34]

Viruses of the mind


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