The Problem With Religion

For years now, I have been promising to write about religion. While I have touched on the subject before, especially in the context of positive psychology, I have never dealt with it directly.

Until now.

The Economist’s recent special report on religion does a fantastic job of taking a balanced, reasoned look at the role of religion in today’s world. It makes my job as a blogger much easier, because it provides a wealth of concrete data and context for thinking about religion.

It also provides a useful word of warning that I’ll echo: “Given the emotion the subject arouses, the chances are that some of what follows will offend you.”

The Economist’s report is well worth reading, but for the sake of time, I’ll summarize some of its key points below:

1) Religion and religiousness are on the rise. In 1966, Time famously ran a cover story, “Is God dead?” Believers would note that He certainly has had the last laugh.

2) Religion is now a key factor in politics and policy, rather than simply being a matter of private belief, especially given the rise of sharia law in many states with a majority Muslim population.

3) One of the factors in the rise of religion has been the competitive free market (especially in the United States). Private religions do better than state-sponsored religions. The power of competition lets new religions like Pentecostalism and Mormonism, and even movements such as today’s increasingly noisy Atheists gain adherents rapidly.

4) “Hotter” more extreme religions are doing better in the marketplace than “cool” religions that emphasize tolerance and ecumenicism.

5) While religion is rarely the cause of war, it often makes conflicts harder to resolve. For example, when two peoples each believe that their God has granted them a particular territory (Jerusalem, Ayodhya), compromise becomes extremely difficult

6) The “culture wars”–the battle over culture, science, and economics–have drawn religion and the religious into the fray for issues ranging from gay marriage to intelligent design and creationism to capitalism and globalization. Different groups slug it out on different points on the spectrum. Conservative American churches are pro-capitalism, but suspicious of science and modern popular culture. Catholic Europe is mildly hostile to all three, and Muslim fundamentalists despise them.

It is within this context that I’ll examine what I believe is the central problem with religion.

There is no question (despite the writings of Hitchens, Dawkins, et al) that religion can be a powerful force for good. In the 20th Century’s great battle against totalitarianism, religion and the clergy played a critical role. Religion has played a similar role in attacking other evils, and in relieving suffering and providing aid.

Happiness research shows that religious faith and regular church attendance are two of the most powerful predictors of happiness. For millions of people, religion is an integral and largely positive pillar in their lives.

Yet as described above, religion has also been a powerful force for evil, and has been used to justify all manner of atrocities and violence, including the oppression of women, minorities, and gays and lesbians.

Clearly, there is no simple way to decide whether religion is “good” or “bad.” What I do believe, however, is that there are certain characteristics of religion that are more dangerous than others.

Ultimately, the problem with religion is a matter of certainty and accountability. Religions that emphasize certainty and believe that one’s primary accountability is to an unseen God are fraught with potential danger.

Certainty, especially a certainty born of faith, is a loaded gun that falls all too easily into the wrong hands. I believe in approaching everything with a healthy skepticism. I’ve been wrong far too many times to believe that I know the answers. The same holds true for mankind. We’ve been around for millions of years, and we laugh when we look at the mistaken certainties of previous generations. Yet you can bet the farm that our descendants will think the same about us.

Anyone who is absolutely certain about a belief is likely to be wrong. And in the case of people who are certain that theirs is the one true God, it’s a virtual certainty. If there is one true God, and one true religion, the vast majority of humanity is barking up the wrong tree. Even Christianity, the world’s most popular religion, accounts for only 20% of the world’s population–and that’s not even taking into account the various flavors of Christianity.

Even worse, if you have perfect certainty, logic dictates that 1) debating the point is a waste of time, and 2) you should attempt to convert as many people to your belief as possible. If you are truly certain that your religion is the one true faith, you shouldn’t waste time looking for evidence, and nothing should stop you from trying to help as many as possible to see the light.

In that sense, the very behavior that secular atheists cite as showing the illogical nature of religion is actually the very logical result of certainty.

By the way, the problem of certainty is by no means limited to religion–it is a problem for politics, science, and those doomed souls who are fans of the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. However, the issue of accountability makes it especially dangerous in the context of religion.

Another eminently logical conclusion resulting from belief in a supreme being is that you are ultimately accountable solely to God. If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and can choose to either welcome you to paradise or condemn you to damnation, you’d have to be pretty dumb to do anything against His (or Her) wishes. God knows better than you what you should do.

This accountability would be fine if all of us had a direct line to the almighty, and we received crystal clear instructions. The problem is that George Burns or Morgan Freeman notwithstanding, God tends not to manifest Himself as a kindly older man who tells us exactly what to do. Instead, we generally work through intermediaries like the Torah, Bible, and Koran, or through popes, priests, and imams.

The problem is that ancient texts don’t have much to say about many modern issues, and that people, no matter what their title or what kind of uniform they wear, are all too fallible. You may be accountable solely to God, but if someone else is acting as God’s interpreter, you are ultimately accountable to that interpreter moreso than to God.

To ascribe infallibility to an all-powerful God is circular, but self-consistent. To ascribe infallibility to a human being who claims to speak for God is logically inconsistent and probably a bad idea. Because God doesn’t issue press releases or answer customer service calls, there’s no way to be certain that you are doing His work.

Then, when you mix in the concept of an unknowable but all-important afterlife, religion becomes explosively dangerous.

If a religious leader tells his followers that God has promised victory in battle, that is a provable hypothesis. If the battle goes poorly, you can be fairly certain that many of those followers will rethink their belief.

On the other hand, if a religious leader tells his followers that A) their earthly lives are unimportant in comparison to the glories of the afterlife and B) God will reward those who obey his commands by welcoming them into paradise, that is an unprovable hypothesis. No matter how many people that religious leader sends to their deaths, someone who truly believes in A) and B) will continue to obey, believing a horrible death in this world to be a far preferable fate to eternal damnation in the next.

Bad enough, but it gets worse. Once you start to believe in fates worse than death, death starts to become a pretty good alternative, both for yourself, and for others. Better to kill the unbeliever or convert him at gunpoint, than to let him damn himself with false beliefs.

I’ve joked many times that starting a religion is a marketer’s dream. Salvation is the ultimate product–the cost of goods sold is zero, and the buyer’s willingness to pay should be infinite. Logically, it is better to spend every last dime to ensure salvation than it is to die a billionaire and be damned. Forget contextual ads; selling indulgences is the ultimate business model.

People rightly find this prospect repulsive, yet it is the logical conclusion of believing in an all-important yet unknowable afterlife.

I respect faith and religion, but we can’t ignore the fact that some religions or religious leaders employ a potent and dangerous mix of certainty and accountability to the unprovable. Belief in God and a higher purpose are incredibly powerful, but can be turned into negatives if misdirected.

I believe the world would be a vastly better place if people approached the subject of religion with less certainty (and that goes for you too, Atheists!), and with an emphasis on accountability in this world, rather than the next.

What troubles me is the fact that it seems like those religions which emphasize certainty and zealous obedience to God are the ones that are winning in the marketplace. As someone with a near-religious belief in free markets and the freedom of choice, I’m very uncomfortable that we may be collectively making a choice that is antithetical to both, and doubly uncomfortable that I’m not sure what we can do about it without violating my own principles.

Perhaps what the world needs are some marketing geniuses to sell the world on skeptical, tolerant religions. Any volunteers?

14 thoughts on “The Problem With Religion

  1. Alan

    Interesting post.

    Unfortunately, the fact is that everyone has a religion (including, as you rightly point out, atheists).

    One cannot make judgements without having a metaphysical viewpoint that is at the root of religion. You have some ultimate beliefs that you hold to that make up your metaphysical (ie. religious) viewpoint.

    The fallacy of religion being a private belief and not having anhything to do with government and politics is rampant in our society because we have been poorly taught.

    The US founding documents are based on a religious viewpoint of the world (ie. we hold these truths to be self evident).

    We have had the luxury of pretending that religion and how we organize our world can be separated because we in the US and the rest of the western world lived with a worldview that successfully protected everyone’s religious beliefs – within a religious belief system (ie. a religion that allowed for other religions – pretty nice religion)

    Now that those fundamental assumptions (e.g. freedom) are under attack by those inside and outside the west, we forget what made all of this possible.

    The question is which religious beliefs accord with reality and which don’t. Tied to that is which religious beliefs are open to growth in human understanding and which aren’t. Tolerance isn’t the issue – agreement with reality is.

    Oh, and by the way, being certain that certainty is a bad thing is a self defeating argument. Unless you aren’t really certain ;-)vqjef

  2. I think one of the most interesting aspects of religion is that they are a group of human beings, started by human beings. And we are all flawed, fear often connects us.

    I agree with you that the certainty is really damaging. It makes it so hard to have a two sided argument when one side can trump with you with it’s that way because it’s true, just ask God.

    I’m not sure I understand the idea behind ascribing infallibility to a God to be self-consistent. I do find it completely understandable that man projects human qualities onto the almighty because it’s our frame of reference.

    The toughest part of it all is how do you have a meaningful and loving discussion about it (sort of a religious take) while actually delivering results from the dialog (the capitalist in me)?

  3. Thoughtful post, Chris. On the point of conversion I had just finished watching Jesus Camp and it reminded me how truly ‘certain’ anything a parent/adult says to a child is; a truly powerful force that can’t be ignored.

    Also, to the point of religion being a force of evil, we must keep in mind the good (beyond happiness) religions have done with bringing aid to far-off countries of the world.. the ones that don’t have oil. 😉

  4. What an interesting and thoughtful post. I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but I think you could almost have titled it “the problem with human beings”.

    We certainly do need better communication, tolerance and understanding of each other, because we are so complex and because that’s the way to find common ground for building on- and we need to keep searching for more and more truth at the same time.

    “Is religion good or bad?” is the atheist argument that has replaced “which religion is best?” from the years when atheism was undreamed of- but who has studied every single religion so deeply that they can answer that question? Isn’t it only atheists who see “religion” as this monolithic simple structure?

    Surely amongst all the religions there are many beneficial ideas and many mistaken, destructive or unhelpful ones, and many individuals who abuse, misunderstand and manipulate them all in bad ways. How to calculate all that, and whether “religion” is to mean the truth of the holy texts or the bunch of people who find meaning in them- no idea!

  5. Good post. I couldn’t help thinking, while reading it, that Orthodox Judaism tends to do pretty well on your scale: it de-emphasises the afterlife, actively discourages conversion, holds that the righteous of all the faiths have a share in the world to come, Jewish or not, and has a strong tradition of doubt and skepticism. (The Talmud is a long series of brief statements of law, each followed by a pages-long argument that always starts “from where do we know this?”) Certainly a few things the daughter religions could usefully pick up on.

  6. Also you can affiliate to Orthodox Judaism without converting:

  7. Chris,

    Very thought-provoking and well-penned.

    My simple mind needs to keep things simple, so my views focus on us as imperfect, fallible, and vulnerable humans. Whether we label things as good or evil, as religion or spirituality, we need to keep things in proper perspective.

    My perspective is that I try to possess spiritual self-esteem. That is, I want to be human enough that I know I need daily help, and that I can in fact receive guidance from many people and situations. My ability to be aware – to actually hear and process that guidance – as well as to act upon it immediately without feeling that I have to be public about it, is a goal I constantly strive for.


  8. Quite an interesting perspective. I used to be enamored with people who were ‘certain’ about their faith, but then I slowly began to realize that no one actually had it all ‘figured out.’ Those who were certain were just pretending, and the psychology of confidence made me want the same certainty.

    The only thing I am certain about is that no one has it all figured out. Human behavior and history quantify this time and again.

    “I’ve joked many times that starting a religion is a marketer’s dream.”

    I am new to this blog so I haven’t read you talk about this before, but how true this is. Most cult leaders would probably make great business entrepreneurs.

    “I respect faith and religion, but we can’t ignore the fact that some religions or religious leaders employ a potent and dangerous mix of certainty and accountability to the unprovable.”

    I couldn’t agree with this more. I once asked a very popular Christian preacher how he knew he was right. I expected to get an logically constructed argument, but instead he said ‘I’m pretty sure.’ I really like that kind of honesty.

    Great post.

  9. Chris,

    Interesting thoughts. I think you’ll resonate with some of the teachings of Brian McLaren – one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential Evangelicals – but his philosophies are not what you’d expect from an “Evangelical”

    Jesus and the Kingdom and The Worship Industry . On the 2nd video, he says “Doubt is a part of this thing as well as faith”

    There’s a growing movement within Christianity called the Emergent Church (which Brian McLaren is an unofficial leader of). It appeals to Postmodern Generation-X’ers who are jaded with the religion of their Baby Boomer parents.

    – Joe from

    ps Are you still with Ustream? I’ve been talking w/ Brad.

  10. Carl

    Alan said:
    “Oh, and by the way, being certain that certainty is a bad thing is a self defeating argument. Unless you aren’t really certain ;-)”

    I don’t think he was saying “certainty” is a bad thing, but “certainty of the Unprovable”. It’s okay to have and to assure certain things that are provable in making decisions (We can assume that the sun will rise tommorrow and that our actions have consequences, etc).

    But (imo) the certainty of something as unprovable as the number of gods in the universe (Atheists say zero, Muslims say one, Christians say one, but they really mean three–it’s tricky, etc.), or what those god(s) want you to do (even if it conflicts with science, reason, logic, etc), really is dangerous to the world. And I feel pretty certain about it.

  11. Or maybe there really is a religion that is perfect and is not guilty of any of the faults that you have incurred on religion—except, whether it exists or not, it would most likely go unheard of because of its honesty and perfection. The whole truth and nothing but the truth has never, ever, been popular. Human beings are just too proud, lazy, and selfish. I mean, we killed Jesus.
    For one, because most of your post talked about human hypocrisy, that particular religion would not provide space for hypocrisy, and all human beings are hypocrites, so that religion would not really gain popularity except among the most honest individuals who happen to belong to that religion/come across it and admit their fallibility as humans, and therefore receive the help of God and then can have the ability to overcome that hypocrisy.
    Or maybe it is being of religious capitalism. All of these other religions, however fallible, receive much more acceptance and drown out that perfect religion.

  12. Jaemin

    I really appreciated the thoughtful intelligence you brought to a very difficult subject. For me the whole idea of certainty provides an amazing tension. I love Jesus, and I feel like I am connected to him in a real relationship, and even though I feel so certain about it, I would absolutely hate to come across in a way that says "I am right and you are wrong", or "I have God on my side and you don't"

    I think there is an authentic spirituality that connects us to the God of love in a real and powerful way, but in no way assumes a monopoly on God or how to experience Him.

  13. Anonymous

    The "sum total" of all religions does not mean that all people on earth have to come under the banner of one prophet or worship one aspect of God. If Christ is true, Islam, Krishna, African indigineuos worships and Buddha are also true. Let there be many teachers, many scriptures; let there be churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues.
    Every religion is a path to reach the same goal. When the goal is reached the Christian, the moslem, the African indigineuos worshiper, the Jew, the Sufi, the Hindu, and the Buddhist realize that each has worshiped the same Reality. One who has attained this knowledge is no longer a follower of a particular path or a particular religion. He has become a man of God and a blessing to mankind.

  14. Zydar C.

    I've always felt that religion is best kept a private affair. But then again, given the human tendency to not see this as such, it would be rather difficult to ensure the personal sanctity of faith. We should always be wary of those who seek to dominate our lives and others with their dogmatic creed particularly if we do not share their ways, lest we be swept away in the tidal nightmare of fanaticism and zealotry.

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