Peace, prosperity and propriety: is religion good?

By John L Perkins

Traditionally, people have been more concerned about whether religions are true than whether they are good. It is often assumed that religions are in some sense, good, as in benevolent or beneficial, whether true or not. A common view is that religions are charitable and consoling, and therefore beneficial for individuals, for society and for humanity in general. This view also includes the notion that religions, or at least certain among them, are economically beneficial. However this benign view of religion warrants challenge just as much as the blind faith acceptance of belief itself. In fact, although the issues are separate, a general acceptance of one assists the acceptance of the other. Given the vagaries of their motivation, many people may believe in religions more because they think it is good to do so, rather than because they think they are true. Hence they may be more willing to reconsider their beliefs if they could be convinced they are bad rather than false.

It has always been the case, and is now increasingly becoming more apparent, that religions cannot on balance be considered “good”. The focus here will be to show that in many of the ways in which religion is commonly conceived to be good, the reverse is actually the case. This may be a more productive area of debate, because on the issue of whether religions are true or not, from a rational viewpoint, the case is closed. Belief persists, not because of, but in defiance of truth. In reality, religious beliefs have no more merit than those of any other ancient superstition. To a rationalist, explaining the persistence of the phenomenon of religious belief is more of a psychological issue than a philosophical one.

Believers will dispute this, so before proceeding, it is perhaps worthwhile to recount briefly why this is so. Firstly, religious beliefs are just that: beliefs. They are not “knowledge” because they have no epistemological validity as “justified true belief”. Secondly, the existence of a multiplicity of alternative religious beliefs, adherence to which is due far more to indoctrination and coercion than reflective assessment, has long indicated that religions are merely an artefact of cultural mythology. Thirdly, belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God persists despite the fact that the existence of such a being is conclusively refuted by the observation of unnecessary and undeserved suffering, and despite the fact that a deity with these characteristics is entirely contradicted by religious texts themselves. Finally, by the end of the 20th century, human knowledge reached the point where all the phenomena that were previously assumed to be due to supernatural causes had been provided with natural explanations. There are no more gaps, and religious beliefs are no longer required to explain anything. Amazingly however, despite it being known that religious beliefs are partisan, illogical and unnecessary, we find that religion is not only persistent, but is resurgent. An explanation for this in terms of mass psychology is required.

At an active level, religious beliefs are motivated by fear, guilt and the fraudulent inducements of post-death rewards. It is said that religions look forward with fear and backward with guilt. Fear is perhaps the strongest emotion and fear of death is its most basic manifestation. Evangelical meetings demonstrate a blatant manipulation of these emotions, propounding the theme: “Everyone will die. No one is perfect. Start worrying now!”. Each religion claims to know the correct path to eternal salvation. The consoling myths of an afterlife provide hope of reunion with departed loved ones. All this, together with the often unfettered access to the minds of children, provides powerful society-sanctioned psychological manipulation. It is doubtful that religions would get away with all this if the effects were perceived as malign. Instead it is held that the more that individuals are guided by sincere faith, the better for them and their society. Overwhelmingly, this notion is false. The reasons for this will be discussed under three headings: peace, prosperity and propriety.

Religion and peace

Throughout history, most wars could be described as being inspired by or associated with either imperialism or religion. In early history, before the rise of monotheism, most wars could probably be described as imperialistic. The conquest of Canaan by the Israelites led by Joshua could perhaps be described as the first religious war, except for the fact that this is a mythological rather than actual event. The reality of religious war however, reached its peak following the Protestant Reformation, when Europe was torn, plundered, burnt and pillaged in the name of religion for over two centuries. But imperialism is also driven by an ideology of cultural superiority, and since religions are a cultural phenomenon commonly also associated with a “chosen people” elitist mentality, the distinction between an imperialist war and a religious one is not always easy to make. Certainly, military campaigns that have not invoked some form of religious endorsement must be regarded as historical exceptions. Perhaps for this reason British scientist Richard Dawkins has claimed that ninety percent of all manmade evil for the last three thousand years has been inspired by religion.

Despite this record of inspiring mayhem, religions claim to represent the epitome of peace, love and tranquillity. This claim is widely accepted. Even U.S. president George W. Bush, perhaps currently one of the most prominent religiously inspired “warriors for peace”, declared somewhat generously after September 11 that “Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance”. Conversely, some of his more prominent supporters such as commentator Daniel Pipes have suggested that “fourteen hundred years of history prove otherwise”. Considering the injustice of invasion and occupation that Muslims have more recently suffered, Islamic terrorists can and do claim that they are just following God’s orders as specified in the Koran. Similarly, with a vision of “moral clarity”, the prosecution of the “war on terror” has taken on some of the characteristics of an imperialist Crusade, the like of which has not been seen for centuries. It is no exaggeration to say that this decent into the madness of religious conflict now poses grave risks for the future of humanity. Yet dedicated believers remain unperturbed by this prospect, content with their concept of religious peace.

While there are psychological reasons for this denial, there are also underlying doctrinal reasons why monotheistic religions in particular generate hostile behaviour. If people believe in many gods, they are more amenable to the idea of additional gods or alternative conceptions of existing ones. However if it is supposed there is only one god, then this belief not amenable to compromise with polytheistic cultures. This is especially so when the monotheistic deity is self-declared to be a jealous God, who requires no other gods to be kept before himself. (As to why a singular god should be jealous of non-existent rivals is a curiosity that believers may, or may not, wish to ponder.) Hence monotheistic doctrines give rise to a divisive form of communal identity, which historically has often led to persecution. In the case of Judaism, persecution, together with a strong sense of ethnic identity, has led to the establishment of the state of Israel. This now provides perhaps the most evident example of an underlying “chosen people” sense of cultural identity leading to exclusivity, and giving rise to a form of ethnic separatism that is at times difficult to distinguish from supremacism. The doctrines of the other major monotheisms are no less troublesome. It cannot be regarded as controversial that there are passages in the Koran and other Islamic texts than can and do incite believers in Islam to violence and hatred of non-Muslims. Similarly, the book of Revelation provides Christianity with a version of “end times” eschatology that is quite unsurpassed in its psychopathology.

The conjunction of these religious ideological forces is now the primary source of global conflict. Therefore both in theory and in practice, such religions generally exhibit the very antithesis of peace and tolerance. To suggest otherwise is to display the same characteristics of willed belief that adherence to religion itself requires. The extent of this denial, as with many other aspects of willed belief, can be explained by the psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. When confronted with the uncomfortable facts that conflict with their beliefs, rather than resolving such dissonant thoughts by modifying their inappropriate beliefs, believers summon more faith and pray harder. Such behaviour is more understandable in situations of emotional stress and grief. Just when the notion of divine benevolence is most contradicted by reality, the emotional need to believe is greatest. Since these emotions are more prominent in times of conflict and war, this may help explain how the absurd positive mental association between religion and peace is able to survive. Certainly by any normal standard, with regard to its fostering of peace, religion cannot be regarded as “good”.

Religion and prosperity

It is a common perception, especially in predominantly Protestant countries, that religion has been of assistance in generating wealth and prosperity. It is claimed by believers that “Christian civilization” gave rise to capitalism and hence has been responsible for the subsequent increases in material well-being, health and longevity that exists today in contrast with past times. It is true that there is a strong statistical correlation between the religion of a country and its per capita income, since the high-income countries of North America and Europe may be classified as predominantly Protestant. However correlation does not prove causation. It is also true that the initial stages of increased economic development began with the industrial revolution in Europe. Indeed the current regional income disparities are largely associated with this historical legacy of industrialisation. However it is not true that this is as a result of the superiority of any particular religion. Rather, the explanation actually lies in the advance of humanist ideals and the reduction in the power and ability of religion to hinder progress, and the economic psychology this facilitated.

It is perhaps true that Christianity’s support for consensual marriages was an important ingredient in social evolution. However, that the supposed economic benefits of Western culture derive from its religious heritage is one of the greatest misconceptions that exist about religion, and one that is perhaps the least refuted. The misconception is reinforced in part by the work of Max Weber, which suggested that the origin of capitalism could be traced to Protestant ethics, in particular a “work ethic”. This is a rather an overstatement of Weber’s position, as he also noted that “greed for gold is as old as the history of man”. However to properly understand the nature of the processes that generate the wealth of nations we need to look beyond theology and sociology to the economic determinants that pertain over the long term. The phenomenon of key importance is not difficult to identify, but it is one that most people, including many economists, need to be reminded of. Increased wealth requires the generation of a surplus and the key to this is technical progress. It has been thus ever since the invention of agriculture allowed humanity to emerge from the Stone Age. Long term benefits are produced by working smarter, not by working harder.

Bearing in mind this fact, that technical progress is the key driving force behind material development, which is in turn the prime requirement for increased well-being in other areas like health, education and artistic expression, we need to consider what role religion played in this process. Religion is a product of human imagination, which is the same source from which all inspiration derives. But in general, since technical progress requires the quest for knowledge outside of religion, and innovation requires the adoption of new techniques or procedures that may not be religiously ordained, the historical role of religion has been effectively to obstruct such progress and hence retard growth in prosperity and well-being. Religion is a burden, not an assistance. Capitalism is more a product of the Enlightenment than of Christendom, although what is now known as “capitalism” is not a heritage that many philosophical descendants of the Enlightenment would perhaps like to claim.

However what is now referred to now as simply “capitalism” is what used to be known until quite recently as laissez faire capitalism. According to this shift, the legitimate constraints on capitalism that were previously deemed desirable, are now seen as undesirable. In the United States in particular, in a climate of religious and patriotic fervour, laissez faire is now seen as good. While it can be accepted that free markets promote efficiency, to elevate this notion to the status of a determining ideology is to overlook where the real long term benefits of capitalism come from. Originally, the term “capitalist” referred to the newly powerful owners of capital assets, in particular the physical plant and equipment used in production. This new “means of production” arose because technology had advanced to the extent that machinery had become significantly more important in production, at the expense of labour. Technical advances became more embodied in the capital stock. Thus capitalism arose because it was just another step, but an important one, in the age-old evolution of technical progress. Unlike other advances, it is a phenomenon that has sustained growth in productivity of around 2 per cent per year (that is, in output per unit of input), for over two hundred years. Generally, these benefits have been shared, and this is reflected in similarly improved average living standards over the same period. This type of gain is not something that can be derived from static considerations such as allocation efficiency or property rights, although these are also important enabling conditions. The admiration that is given to capitalism should rightly be given to technical progress.

Seen it this light, the whole basis for a religious explanation for the superiority of capitalism disappears. The central requirements for technical progress are freedom of scientific inquiry and freedom to innovate commercially, both of which are characteristics of rationalism, not of religion. Historically, it also helped that Europe was able to abolish the religious doctrine of usury, because without the ability to lend money with interest, the finance of capitalist development would have been quite impossible. The adverse effects of a certain religious doctrine, namely Islam, on both economic and social well-being still affects many countries today, as can readily be seen from the U.N. Arab Human Development Reports. These should be sufficient to dispel any doubt about the austere economic effects of dominant religion, Islam in particular. Despite the long term imperatives, some economists studying the economic effects of religious belief, using limited cross-country data sets, find and report spurious correlations, such as that a belief in hell is associated with increased economic growth (Barro and McCleary, 2003). Such conclusions are ill-founded and propose no causal mechanism. By contrast, no economist would deny the importance of investment in capital goods or capital works, either public or private, that increase future productivity. Yet the obvious doctrinal constraints on the economic psychology necessary to assist this are often simply ignored.

An adverse consequence of the misconception of the origin of the long-term benefits of capitalism, and the consequent enthusiasm for non-interventionist policies, has been the development of the belief that the benefits of capitalism should not be shared and that taxation is inherently undesirable. Yet the redistribution of benefits, allowing rises in real wages and public services in line with increased long term technical productivity have historically been essential features of capitalism’s success. Technical progress enables goods to become cheaper relative to services, including government services. It means that economic growth can be achieved by using fewer resources. It provides benefits that can be made available to all. It is now more important than ever that these benefits be used wisely. Instead they are increasingly being squandered, on consumption, on debt, and on unproductive assets. Too many resources and research efforts are devoted to military ends. Religion, and the distorted perceptions it engenders, still obstructs the process of modernisation and improving living standards in many parts of the world. Religious fundamentalists of all kinds perceive secular authority as usurping the power of their chosen deity, and so seek to limit secular power and responsibility. However, the more laissez faire capitalism becomes, the less beneficial it may become if the benefits are not shared. The misconceptions caused by religion regarding the nature of prosperity and its relation to human well-being mean that it cannot in this respect be regarded as “good”.

Religion and propriety

The most commonly perceived connection between religion and “goodness” is that religions provide a sense of propriety, and that they define what is morally good. It is believed that only religious texts prescribe appropriate “moral values”, and the existence of any sense of morality is believed to be a divine providence. Good and evil are held to be absolute, and the only way of discerning between them is by adoption of the appropriate religious belief. Combined with religious promotion of guilt and the fear of death, this perception is a powerful force motivating the persistence of belief. Philosophically, this popular concept is defended as the divine command theory of morality. As with the perception of religion regarding peace and prosperity, the perception of religion as a source of propriety is also false.

Ironically, the basic refutation of the divine origin of ethics was provided before either of the world’s major monotheistic religions first came to be established. In what is commonly known as the Euthypro dilemma described by Socrates: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Do the gods follow what is good or do they define it? If the answer is the former, then some independent criteria are required to determine what is good. If it is the latter then determining exactly what has been arbitrarily divinely commanded may be subject to doubt, multiple claims to authenticity and arbitrary interpretation. Either the gods are not necessary to determine morality or there are at least as many practical divine command theories of morality as there are religions. The only solution to this mess is to seek independent and objective criteria to determine moral goodness. To do otherwise, despite religious exhortations, is in fact to commit to moral failure.

The best way to show that morality is possible without religion is to demonstrate how it should properly be determined. To do this is it first necessary to recognise that in questions of morality there are very often grey areas and it is not always possible to specify right and wrong in absolute terms. The denial of this, in favour of a religiously inspired sense of “moral clarity”, is a major cause of many world problems, such as terrorism and the “war on terror” response to it. Rather than being a matter of binary choice, morality should be seen as a process of considering all the facts and making the best judgement. In doing this, philosophers in the field of applied ethics have proposed lists of principles to be used as “criteria of adequacy”. One of the best of these is (Resnik, 1998, p22):

Non-maleficence: Do not harm yourself or other people.
Beneficence: Help yourself and other people.
Autonomy: Allow rational individuals to make free and informed choices.
Justice: Treat people fairly: treat equals equally, unequals unequally.
Utility: Maximise the ratio of benefits to harms for all people.
Fidelity: Keep your promises and agreements
Honesty: Do not lie, defraud, deceive or mislead.
Privacy: Respect personal privacy and confidentiality.

In many situations, reaching the best moral decision may be done simply by adhering to one or more of these principles. Contravening any principle may only be justified by the overriding need to uphold another. The advantage of these principles is that they are universal. Each may be considered like a Golden Rule – everyone would wish to be treated in accordance with such principles because no-one wishes to be harmed, neglected, betrayed, lied to, suppressed, cheated or have their privacy invaded. Because the list includes both autonomy and utility, the framework provided has wide scope for application not just to personal situations but to public policy as well. The postulating of such principles demonstrates that the argument that there can be no agreed basis for morality without religion can be conclusively refuted.

What is required is a process of “moral reasoning”, providing an objective basis for moral decision making, using such principles. On questions such as abortion and homosexuality, it is quite apparent that this will lead to different conclusions from those derived from religious dogma, which is too often used as an excuse for prejudice and bigotry. The moral failing inherent in religion may be seen in the persistent violations of the above principles that it inspires. Its divisiveness often leads to malevolent deprivation and violence. Religion’s doctrines restrict the most basic of freedoms – freedom of thought. Its treatment of women is unjust, especially in Islam. Its strictures reduce the utility derived from economic well-being. But perhaps the most fundamental moral failing of religion is one that is also its main feature – the dishonesty of asserting as true that which is unproven and its often blatant denial of facts. Thus again contrary to popular myth, in moral terms, religion cannot be regarded as “good”.

Conclusion

While everyone may quite readily accept that other peoples’ religions are false, they are deceived into believing their own religion is true. Powerful psychological and sociological forces maintain this selfish delusion. It is encouraged by a belief that religion is good, both for the individual and for society. This perception of goodness involves concepts of peace, prosperity and propriety. On each count, the perception is false. Overcoming the debilitation of religion requires raising awareness of these misconceptions. Faith is not a virtue. Religion is not good, it is malign. It is not beneficial, it is a burden. It should not be believed or practised. The public interest is best served by encouraging people to give up religious beliefs and practices, in the same way that adherence to other ancient prejudices and superstitions have been abandoned.

Achieving this is not an impossible dream. After being common practice for centuries, slavery and persecution have largely been abolished. If the wrongs and costs inherent in religion were more widely accepted, all that may be then required is a greater recognition of the primacy of universal values, based on the common interests of all humanity. The superiority of these values and of their long-term viability compared with the increasingly pathological effects of religious delusion is becoming ever more apparent. And it is not only the economic and social benefits of humanist ideals that may be confidently asserted. The dissipation of contrived guilt and fear, and the removal of the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that religion imposes, both provide a great deal of psychological relief to the resolved atheist, something to which all people may happily aspire.

References

Robert J. Barro, Rachel McCleary, “Religion and Economic Growth”, NBER Working Paper No. w9682, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass., May 2003.
Resnik, David B., The Ethics of Science: An Introduction, Routledge, London and New York, 1998.

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and President of the Secular Party of Australia.
This paper was the subject of a talk presented at the Atheist Society, Melbourne, on August 10, 2005. It has also been published in the  Australian Rationalist, No.71, Spring 2005.