Over at the occasionally insightful Salon, Valerie Tarico posts a set of 6 reasons to justify the notion that religion does more harm than good. I would like to examine these reasons and attempt to sort out the extent to which they might support the claim that religion does more harm than good.
In the course of this analysis, I will approach the claims as an empiricist with a scientific worldview so as not to prejudice my conclusions. For the convenience of the reader, I will perform my analysis in parts, taking two of the author's claims at a time.
5. Religion teaches helplessness.
The author provides some cultural proverbs as evidence of this claim rather than citing specific sacred texts, but there is certainly a wealth of evidence in various sacred texts that could be used to support her view. Islam has a very strong focus on submission to Allah, Buddhism is a great example of a religion singularly focused on a resigned acceptance of the reality of suffering via detachment, Christianity has a long tradition of surrendering to God's will, and Taoism is deeply embedded with a mentality of understanding one's place rather than trying to force our way out of it. I could add to this list at length, but why bother?
The first problem with the author's association of religion with fatalistic resignation is of course that there are non-religious viewpoints that are also deeply fatalistic and today often stem from a scientific worldview which accepts determinism. The vague appeals to the nature of the universe or to science so common in my generation (perhaps invoking a specific branch of the natural sciences) are hardly any less a sign of resigned helplessness than the proverbs mentioned by the author. Fatalistic helplessness and resignation are general human responses to a level of survival pressure that taxes our resources beyond what we believe we can handle. Most of us have been there at some point, and my guess is that for most of us it was driven by the difficulties of daily life rather than a desire for a martyr's crown.
The second problem with this claim is much the same as the problem with her other claims. The author may recognize a Biblical Christian notion that with faith the size of a mustard seed, we can purportedly move mountains. This seems like the opposite of teaching helplessness; it actually seems downright empowering. Also, religions frequently make claims that we are far from helpless. Buddhism teaches us that we can end all our own suffering through eliminating unhealthy attachments, and that seems to assume that we are able to help ourselves immensely. Islam expects its adherents to attend to the needs of the widow and the orphan, which seems to assume that not everyone is helpless. Taoism expects us to be active participants in our own lives, albeit in such a way that we are in harmony with our own nature and the nature of the world in which we live. On the whole, the evidence doesn't support the claim that "religion teaches helplessness."
But might it support the claim that "religions sometimes teach helplessness and sometimes teach us to stand on our own"? Sure. There are enough examples of folks relying on faith healers and refusing medical treatment in favor of waiting for a miracle to support that much more modest claim.
The author also makes reference to ignoring structural problems in favor of kindness within a more limited sphere. This does sometimes happen with religious adherents, but it is not a general problem. If it were, we could not make sense of the existence of a massive set of government-funded social welfare programs at the local, state, and federal level in the United States. Those programs got voted in by a bunch of religious people and are supported by an overwhelmingly religious constituency today. This might seem like a coincidence if there were no religious organizations teaching that we need to engage in structural change, but as it turns out there are indeed such teachings. As any reader of that article can see, Christianity has a long tradition of critiquing existing unjust power structures and seeking remedies for the poor and vulnerable. In the Pali canon, the Buddha provided a vision of the wheel-turning monarch to his disciples so that they could identify just and unjust power structures as well. And speaking of power structures...
6. Religion seeks power.
What I found particularly spectacular about this claim is that the author did not bother to provide the slightest bit of evidence for something that is apparently so obvious that it does not require evidence. Once again, I can help. Pope Innocent the 10th is a great example of the leader of a religious institution seeking power. The powerful Evangelical Christian influence on major elections in the United States seems to be waning quickly, but it was quite potent for a while. A survey of various Buddhist Councils helps us understand how integrated Buddhism was in the political life of various countries into which it entered, and Buddhism does not shy away from enjoying the official recognition that comes from being the State religion. I could go on and on about the relationship between religion and politics, but why bother?
The reader may recall from the preceding paragraphs that these same religions often find themselves in a position of critiquing unjust power structures. The reader may also recall that in the first installment of this series, we discussed the U.S.S.R. and China and North Korea as examples of power-hogging secular governments. If it is religion that seeks power, then should we conclude that socialism and communism and totalitarianism are religions? Or should we conclude that the seeking of power has a cause which is independent of religion?
It doesn't take a specialist in evolutionary psychology to see that people in positions of power typically have greater access to resources and that we instinctively seek to acquire resources without stopping ourselves in much the same way that we consume resources without stopping ourselves, as mentioned before. We might give away wealth that we don't need (e.g. Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or Oprah), but we human beings find it difficult to give away resources wholesale, which is why Franciscan friaries and Rinzai monasteries which require a radical rejection of worldly goods and power are not actually that popular in societies in which resources are plentiful. They are more likely to be popular in societies in which poverty is the norm.
In the end, the author never really provides us with an answer to the question of whether or not religion does more harm than good. In part, this is because the author never stipulates a coherent definition of "good" or "harm" by which we could adjudicate that claim. I look forward to someone proposing such a definition so that we could take a serious look at the evidence as a whole rather than choosing the evidence that suits us. Then we could actually have an answer, though it would only be an answer within a particular moral framework and might not be agreeable to everyone.
The author is correct in her general observation that there is a fairly strong (though not 1:1) correlation between religious adherence and survival pressure, but it is far from clear what conclusions we might draw from that within a scientific worldview. Do we draw the conclusion we only need religion for survival, and once our survival pressure is gone we can do without it? If so, then does that mean that we are justified in religious belief when living in environments that are difficult or hostile to us? Would that mean that it would make sense for people who go from conditions of wealth and ease to conditions of poverty and strife to become religious during that process? Do we give the anti-scientific nonsense of a religious person a pass because life is hard for them and they need it in order to cope?
Despite the subtitle indicating that it was hard to argue with some of the author's points, it was not at all difficult to argue with any of these points. I find it difficult to imagine how it would be difficult to do so for anyone who has studied the world's religions in any depth or studied human evolution and cognition in any depth.