Not necessarily….but……
It seems to me that the main problem is this term “religion” in practice often encompasses negative aspects of culture, tradition, nationalism and exclusivism as well as the fine idealism found in concepts of forgiveness, kindness, an awe and respect for creation and more recently outgrowths like the Charter of Compassion.

It is reasonable to assume it is the balance achieved in practice between these sets of competing forces that determines for individual followers whether religion produces positive or negative experiences. Where religion is shown to be harmful in individual cases it may be for example that the cultural and exclusivist notions have come to dominate, and where fundamentalism is allowed to hold sway, religious practice can even become silly at best and dangerous at worst. Yet we should also acknowledge the best that religion has been able to do includes examples like setting up reconciliation in South Africa and providing motivation for the abolition of slavery. History teaches that for some nations, religion was a strong part of setting up the hospital system, the education system, and was associated with developing wise laws. Given the historical outcomes there is no need to condemn religion per se.

On the positive side, religion for some clearly offers solace at times of grief and uncertainty. I remember for example a time when there was a two minutes silence for victims for the Earthquake in Christchurch. I opened the church doors in case anyone might relate to a time of silence in the Church. A good number, almost all of them strangers, walked in off the street to pray and pay their respects. We might note too strangers to the church are prepared to ask for Christian services for burial of family. I have also noticed the positive aspects of religion in building community. At its best, the church appears to offer a centre where people feel welcome, at home and supported. It also offers opportunity for positive social interaction, and aids the community in reinforcing good standards of social behaviour.

Inculcating the golden rule and a respect for property and person is not the exclusive preserve of religion but is often a part of religion nevertheless. For me, I have to admit even religions where I might personally disagree with basic beliefs can have very beneficial side effects. For example although I am definitely personally unconvinced by beliefs of the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints, it is quite clear that many of the sociological statistics for the Mormon State of Utah show good health indicators and a low divorce rate compared with other states in the US. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, again a group where I am unconvinced by their theology, also appear to have better than average family indicators.

Although one main claim that some make for religion is that it makes it possible to have eternal life, we might do well to reflect on the wide range of interpretations on what this means for followers of different religions. Presumably all such interpretations cannot have equal predictive ability or equal correspondence with what is actually true in reality. This then raises a question. Is believing something to be true, when at best it has some likelihood of being untrue, likely to be unhelpful or harmful? Perhaps the answer here is that it partly depends on what difference it makes to the way you live your life as a consequence of that belief.

There are also some clear negatives to following some types of religious belief. From history we have ample reason to examine potential harm from religion. Some beliefs impose long term difficulties or even suffering. Thus for instance sometimes a religious belief can be used to determine whom one is permitted to marry, or to bar someone from remarrying. Sometimes religion is also used to drive someone out of a family for some supposed heretical belief or association. For many years the Pope’s forbidding of the use of condoms has exposed people to what many claim to be unnecessary risks eg AIDS and unwise and unplanned pregnancy. Female circumcision, stoning victims of rape, making widows commit suicide are also examples of harmful religious practices. Persecution based on differences in religious belief (sometimes for the intended safeguarding of the soul) is still recognised as appropriate in some societies. Even today there are civil wars and interstate disputes centred on differences in religious belief.

Religion can be criticised if it restricts freedom to think and question and occasionally it causes rejection of widespread scientific understanding. This may be a problem when conventional medical treatment is denied and some form of religious practice is substituted. Here we might think of those denied blood transfusions inoculations, chemotherapy or standard preventative procedures like the administration of insulin for diabetics.

The more extreme forms of abuse of trust associated with some forms of religion include fraud, brainwashing and sexual abuse by those in positions of trust. Some belief systems go far beyond truthful observation and insist on absolute acceptance of fanciful speculation. Repeated unsuccessful predictions for the end of the world characteristic of some sects should suggest a lack of honesty if beliefs are not modified as a consequence. One common misuse of faith is when prayer is used dishonestly persisting with forms of prayer for which evidence of success is absent.

So to return to the original question. Is religion helpful or harmful? Since it can be both, some self examination of one’s own religious belief and practice, asking the personal question of who benefits or who is disadvantaged by ones own beliefs may be a useful exercise. We may be surprised.
Question: Is there something more that needs saying?

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19 Responses to IS RELIGION HARMFUL?

  1. Pingback: What business is it of religion to be involved with politics? « snoopervizion

    • peddiebill says:

      If religion doesnt influence your politics, your life, your relationships and your thinking then surely it would not be worth having. On the other hand if religion causes you to mess up your relationships, be unpleasant to others, use your politics in a harmful way and in short become harmful in the sense that others will suffer, then it is not a religion worth having. Think good religion and bad religion. There is abundant evidence that both exist.

  2. Andrew G says:

    Just to go a little further with your last comment, “There is abundant evidence that both exist,” a blogger friend of mine found this article from an anthropologist which actually asks, “Should we believe religion actually exists?” Here is the link.

    Just another perspective…

    • peddiebill says:

      That site also has an article entitled “There is no such thing as sexual intercourse” !!! If they are right much of the human race are going to be a little disappointed.
      While technically I am sure the anthropologists have a point, I wonder if they understand that to non anthropologists, worship activity and the associated beliefs do have something to do with what most people call religion. I suspect all those people who gather in churches, mosques and temples each week would be uncomprehending if they were told that that does not show they have a religion.

  3. Andrew G says:

    Yea, it’s a pretty neat website. Deep and wide, in terms of cool ideas.

    I enjoyed the article and thought it was fun. It highlights the issue of taking labels and categories too seriously, too fundamentally, that’s all. At some point in our history, we didn’t have such dividing lines between religion, culture and so on. Hmm, I wonder if our language can take many more layers of abstraction…

    Your post does make an excellent point though. At the end of the day, as you suggest, there is still an evaluation to do — who benefits from [insert label here] and does it foster well-being or discourage well-being?

  4. alekswashere says:

    I don’t think that religion encompasses elements of culture, but that religion itself is an element of culture. Therefore there are so many religions – each society/culture invented it’s own religion in order to satisfy their needs. In that sense religions are good – they satisfy specific needs of people. However, they may be some elements of religions that may be conflicting with the more general ideas that people have chosen to agree on, such as the human rights. Those elements usually come from a different time and lower level of development of civilization. Religions should not be static, they should change and evolve with time. I don’t think religions are unequivocally good or harmful, but some rituals/beliefs that are relics of times when we simply didn’t know any better, may be harmful. I mean there was a time when saying that Earth is round was considered a blasphemy punished by death…

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks for this – a thoughtful contribution. You might like to check out my other post dealing with culture and religion, I would be interested in your comments on that as well.

  5. dave says:

    I suspect this question is intentionally vague to foster a dialog. Every rational adult will eventually come to develop some appreciation of his/her place in the universe and that understanding becomes the foundation for whatever religion he/she chooses to follow, where in this overly broad description a religion could include types of atheism and agnosticism.

    Human beings are inherently social creatures and so religious gatherings offer a means of fostering a social bond with others. If the religious meetings are supportive then they offer a clear benefit to the participants.

    I suggest fanatacism pushes a religion into its harmful inclinations. I feel this is clearly pointed out in the various anecdotes above, when a religion can be considered harmful. Some cases, like with the Pope and condom use, are more an accusation of a person than of that religion. Religious leaders can become a divisive influence when they push specific rules that are in clear conflict with others in the larger community and as the number in conformance grows the religion itself can be perceived as harmful.

    It seems most religions have their peaceful, tolerant foundation. The religion required it to offer some appeal for its initial propagation. Fanatacism can derail a religion from its helpful path.

    As long as my religious beliefs and practices are personal, I do not see how my particular religion can be seen as harmful to others. Only when I take action in accordance with what the religion prescribes and when such action causes harm to others does the religious practice become harmful. At that point, is it the religion or is the religion’s leadership that is the cause of the harm? It is always my personal moral decision to follow to whatever extent the rules my religion prescribes but what about when, like sheep, many follow?

    Is this really where the answer to this page’s question resides: the consideration of who sets the rules for a religious group and are those particular rules harmful?

    I am leery of declaring any particular religion harmful (though I suggest many believers are uninformed). I can see conservative Christian politicians pushing for a justification for their crusade – and they appear quite incapable of considering their own immoral actions.

    • Cherel says:

      Alarming comment, Dave. You are not willing to acknowledge that Radical Islamic terrorists are endangering innocents around the world, but you are willing to call conservative Christians immoral. If you were simply referring to garden variety politicians, I could agree with you, but why people insist on linking the name of Christ with evil and immorality is beyond me. Perhaps language is so muddled that accurate communication is becoming impossible.

      When Pilate posted signs at the site of the crucifixion calling Jesus, “The King of the Jews”, the Jewish leaders asked him to change the sign to “He claimed to be The King of the Jews”. Pilate refused to change the sign saying, “What I have written, I have written.” Why? Because Jesus was and is the King of the Jews and words matter. Those words were God inspired and could not be altered.

      In this case, if you want to call someone immoral and you believe you are right to do so, it would be better to say “so-called Christians.” Unless, of course, you are truly denying the validity of Christianity altogether.

      • peddiebill says:

        Cherel, it occurs to me that you are being a bit selective when you notice the dangers of radical Islam but do not notice dangers in conservative Christianity. History suggests that when conservatism is placed ahead of things like compassion people suffer. For example the Inquisition,whether we like it or not was the church of the day moving against those who didnt recognise the particular rules and definitions laid down by an extremely conservative leadership. Similarly the witches of Salem trials was initiated specifically in the name of the Church.

        If you then argue that the Crusades, and witch trials and pogroms against Jews were not examples of Christianity in action because they didnt reflect the teachings of Christ, surely by the same token you must say when conservative Islamic people engage in nasty practices they are not being true to the principles of Islam, therefore it is not Islam you should have a problem with.
        It is unwise to compare our theory with other people’s practice.

        Our practice includes past embarrassments like condoning dropping white phosphorus on civilians in Iraq (which is presumably why yours and my Church didnt protest when it happened) Our theory said forgive our enemies seventy times seven.

        The Islamic practice includes condoning shaheeds (which we insist on calling suicide bombers). Islamic theory calls for kindness to strangers. We can hardly compare their suicide bombers with our forgiveness of enemies – that is their practice with our theory.

  6. Cherel says:

    Wow. There were 5000 Islamic terrorist incidents worldwide in 2009 alone, but we have to talk about the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials to implicate Christianity by comparison. Look at the life of Jesus. (His true followers act like Him.) Look at the life of Muhammad. (His true followers act like him.) No comparison.

    Christianity is not a religion based on Jesus Christ; it is a relationship with the living Son of God, Jesus Christ. Islam is a religion based on the writings of a sadistic pervert named Muhammad who is long dead. One cannot have a relationship with him. One can only follow his perverted teachings (Jihad, oppression of women, murder or heavy taxing and oppression of those who refuse to worship Allah, polygamy, underage marriage=pedophilia, sex slavery, hatred of Jews and Christians, world domination by Islam, etc.).

    Is religion harmful? Yes. Is relationship with Jesus Christ harmful? No!
    Have religious people done evil in the name of Christianity? Yes. Were they Christians? No. Have religious people done evil in the name of Islam? Yes. Were they Muslims? Yes.

    Reading your site, I see that you know a lot but truly stand for nothing worthwhile. Unintentionally, in your “openminded” meanderings, you end up aiding the enemy of all souls and opposing the truth which sets people free through a born again relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus loves you and those you could impact with truth. I pray this makes you think.

    • dave says:

      Wow. Cherel, on reading this comment I am quite concerned as to what you truly stand for.

      President George Bush claimed God told him to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. Is Bush a Christian? He certainly claims to be but you disagree?

      I see some similarities between Islam of today with Christianity of the Middle Ages, the time of the Inquisition. If Islam is harmful now then was Christianity harmful a few hundred years ago? Islam was very tolerant of other religions in its early years and perhaps less so now but when reading the above (and knowing of the efforts to get facets of Christianity locked into American politics) a suspicion grows that Christianity is also becoming less tolerant of other religions now.

      The above comment’s reference to Islamic terrorist incidents is totally missing their context.

      I feel justified in expressing a concern about conservative Christian politicians and their crusade.

      According to the recent book by Robert Pape, Dying to Win, the primary objective for most suicide bombers is to eject foreign troops. Osama bin Laden clearly explained his justification for the 9/11 attacks was the persecution of the people in Palestine and Lebanon. Our foreign policy in the region has consistently supported our subservient rulers such as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to maintain our dominance of the region (16 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from these two countries) – and active democracies rarely allow blatant colonial looting.

      I grew up attending a Catholic grade school in the 60’s during the Vietnam War. I do not remember ever hearing ‘God Bless our Troops’ at any time, either on televised news reports or from my teachers, nor have any frequent references like that been shown from archives. Our reason for invading Vietnam was maintaining our global dominance (read: JFK and the Unspeakable). We had a (reluctant) drafted army so to provide motivation for them to murder innocent civilians the locals had to be dehumanized, a lesser people than Americans. Many atrocities followed.

      Bush felt he was told by God to attack even though none of the civilians in either Afghanistan or Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. No one from Iraq or Aghanistan was on any of the planes. By occupying Afghanistan and Iraq our military could extend American dominance to the region, intimidating Iran and Syria. We have a mercenary, volunteer army now so to provide motivation for them to murder innocent civilians the locals had to be made suitable targets. Instead of seeking only the terrorists, a military invasion and occupation commenced as the Christians brought democracy to the non-Christians. The desire for revenge was expressed often and many atrocities followed. ‘God Bless Our Troops’ became the forever repeated slogan. President Bush actually used the word ‘Crusade’ in a speech on September 18, 2001. Colin Powell used the word ‘Crusade’ before Congress on March 23, 2004. ‘God Bless Our Troops’ is nothing but explicitly declaring any evil they perform is done in the name of Christianity.

      Have you ever read The War Prayer by Mark Twain?

      You apparently find Bill’s writings as just meanderings but I find them cause for hope. I think it important to note Christians can get their inspiration from the Bible but it is not a source for guidance. The difference (inspire vs guide) is critical! Have you read the book: The Right Hand of God?

      The anti-Islam vitriol above is over the top. You must not have read some of the merciless texts found in the Old Testament, but your emphasis (beyoind this comment) seems to be on the New Testament. Is only one of the two relevant? Reading the comment and your web site I can almost feel the evangelical zeal, where the Bible is both your shield and your sword in battle.

      Biblical scholars continue to piece together the events of 2000 years ago. In the past 70 years, new scriptures have been found including the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as works that were dropped during the editing of the original Bible, such as the Gospel of Judas. New insights have been offered to explain what was left in the Bible about Jesus, James, and Paul. Though Jesus is never mentioned in any Roman texts, his brother James the Just is. James is actually relevant to the First Jewish Roman War which closely followed his assassination. The Bible omits the significant political discord of the time.

      There is significant world-wide political discord in our time, due to the waning American military empire and the dissolving American driven capitalist economic model, as well as the continuing evolution of the world’s political structure after the failure of the other large colonial empires. The world’s religions can offer help during this time or they can contribute to the fracturing.

      Each person has their own degree of reliance on their religion. Some have little need for it while others depend a great deal on it. When doubt arises, each person must reconcile the impact. I am concerned some Christians might lose their morals after doubting the Bible but the Bible is never a source that defines moral behavior. It is just literature. Our culture defines our morals not ancient scriptures translated (and interpreted!) from other ancient languages.

      I see Bill’s Progressive Christianity as an effort to seek a foundation that will not collapse when the ancient writings turn out to be less critical than was the case for earlier generations of Christians.

      • Cherel says:

        “For no other foundation can any one lay
        than that which is laid down, which is Jesus Christ.”
        1Corinthians 3:11

      • peddiebill says:

        I note Cherel’s reply with her quotation from Corinthians. I have always thought the problem with proof texts is that you can find one to support just about any position. Another text from Corinthians says:
        “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

        And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
        Now the question then becomes: is Cherel actually consistent and has never spoken in Church? Honest answer please. You see if she has spoken in Church – or has been praying in Church with her head uncovered in contravention of another of Paul’s authoritative sayings then she is just pulling texts out at random to support her case.

  7. Bill Peddie says:

    thankyou for taking the trouble to share your thoughts and your judgement of me.
    A shame really – I had rather hoped my years of service to the community including ambulance duty, running beach missions, leading a Church Youth Group , coaching sports, school committees, Convenor of Scientists against Nuclear Arms, Justice of the Peace, lay minister, Rotary (President twice) and even a year as a missionary volunteer in New Guinea – might have reflected some worthwhile values…. but evidently they count for nothing. Ah well, such is life. Perhaps if I bought a Baptist badge and tried to look a little more Holy it would help.

  8. Cherel says:

    I am actually quite impressed with your bio which I just read earlier today and, of course, the accomplishments you listed in your last comment are highly commendable. However, I was not addressing or downplaying your life’s achievements or your person. My comments were limited to your “progressive” philosophical viewpoint.

    When you give Christianity and Islam equal validity and say the Bible and the Koran are equally peaceful and violent and justify homosexuality based on science rather than the moral standards set by the Creator– assuming that God didn’t know what science would later discover when He set His standards, etc. It sounds like you are sacrificing truth for political correctness.

    I could tell from your comments that you are very intelligent and knowledgeable and I wondered why you are so liberal until I read your bio and realized the liberal education had done its work again. Your thinking is a dime a dozen in academia.

    I’d be interested to know what you had to say to “lost” people when you were a missionary and what you have to say to the two congregations you presently serve.
    Do you teach from the Bible or the Koran or both? Do you have a solid foundation to share with your congregants concerning salvation? Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe that He died for our sins and was resurrected as the firstfruits of eternal life? Do you believe you must be born again? Do you believe that to come to the Father you “must worship Him in Spirit and in Truth”?

    I have honestly enjoyed our exchanges. I find it totally fascinating that we can have a conversation across the world like this. My purpose was not to insult you but to challenge your thinking. You have such great potential for good and for God.

  9. Cherel says:

    It’s true that a scipture can be found to fit almost any circumstance of life if pulled out of context. The scripture I shared was apropo and not out of context. Jesus is the foundation of Christianity. His Word and the Holy Spirit are our guide.

    The scriptures you chose were out of the context of our conversation and meant only to slience my comments. A standard liberal tactic which should be beneath you.

    • peddiebill says:

      You do me an injustice. The point of my reply was to point out that Bible quotes by themselves can become out of date and even irrelevant as society and understanding changes. It is true that Paul was inspired and inspirational – but it is unwise to automatically accept him or any other Bible writer as an ultimate authority on everything today. The fact that you evaded giving a direct answer to my chosen quote with his directive about women keeping silent in Church suggests to me that you actually agree and think that at least on that point he is not speaking God’s word for today. Our context today is that unlike for Paul where he was talking to a Church struggling to get underway in a more stable and mono-cultural setting than the one we find ourselves in today, we now have to deal with a range of competing cultural and religious ideas. It is a nonsense that we should simply dismiss one quarter of the world’s population because they happen to be born into a different set of religious understandings (ie Islam) and it is not helpful to do so from a particular set of fixed attitudes to the Bible which are not shared by many even within Christianity. Can I suggest you read Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” to find a more reasoned and informative view of Islam in context. If you google her Charter of Compassion – you might also encounter a more reasoned and charitable means of dealing constructively with the best we might find in related religions.

  10. Cherel says:

    If I misread your intent, I apologize, however I believe we have irreconcilable differences concerning the authoritative foundation of scripture for Christianity. I believe Jesus is the Logos of God (the living Word) and that the written Word is His immutable revelation to us for living that cannot be altered for every cultural whim.

    I do believe our understanding of the Word develops over time as we “study to show ourselves approved unto God” and learn to “rightly divide the Word of truth.” (In other words, we change rather than having God’s Word change.) I also believe that the “carnal” man cannot receive, understand or partake of the deeper things of God and they will remain a mystery to him. Onlt the Spirit knows the deep things of God and reveals them to born again children of God.

    I do not believe any of us will ever understand everything about the Word of God in this life, as we are ever maturing, and will never completely reach perfection here.
    My beliefs have changed a lot thru the years and I don’t hold with denominational teachings. All denominations have chosen to magnify a portion of truth to the extent that it diminishes other aspects of the truth.

    I believe that God’s Word is inerrant in its original inspiration but that it may have a few errors that have been introduced by over zealous scribes through the years. A big problem I have with the passage you quoted is that it does not agree with the equality of the genders at creation or with Paul’s overall teachings concerning women (neither male nor female in Christ Jesus) and it says “as also says the law” when there is no such saying in the O.T. law. I have heard that it may have been in some extra-biblical Jewish writings, but Paul was well educated and would have known that, so I don’t believe he would have made that statement. To rightly divide the Word it must be confirmed in other parts of scripture– or at the very least, not contradicted.

    I do not believe errors are numerous in the Bible. The Dead Sea scrolls confirmed that O.T. scripture has been consistently transmitted with a very high degree of accuracy for thousands of years. However, I am aware of a few anomalies concerning peripheral issues that are not directly related to salvation.

    I am far more open minded than you would perceive because our perspectives put us at odds and we defend our positions from opposite ends of the spectrum. I see no possibility of a meeting of the minds between us because I truly believe the Holy Bible is God’s Word yesterday, today and tomorrow. Not one jot or one tittle of God’s inerrantly inspired Word shall pass away until all things are fulfilled. Unlike you, I see no unfulfilled prophecies except those for which the time has not yet come.

    The Bible itself warns against arguing about the Word so I am trying to back away from that. I originally thought we could debate some political ideas but our theological perspectives seem larger than our politics, which of course, is as it should be. But, that means we are not going to change each other’s minds. Only God can change deep seated beliefs because only God can renew the heart.

    I hope this sheds more light than heat as that is my intent.

    Jesus loves “us” this I know for the Bible tells me so.

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