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A majority of Aussies think religion does more harm than good

December 3rd, 2017

A recent international survey by Ipsos probed people’s attitude to religion, in particular whether it is seen as being harmful or beneficial for society.

The results

The 23 participating countries were mainly first world countries, with almost half from Europe. Those surveyed were evenly divided about whether religion is harmful or beneficial, but the results for the different countries varied widely.

Australia had the second strongest view (62%) that religion does more harm than good. Other countries where the majority hold this view were almost all from Europe, with Belgium, Germany and Spain the most critical. At the other end of the scale, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Brazil had significantly positive views of religion.

Of the other English-speaking countries (presumably of most interest to readers of this blog). Great Britain and Canada had a small majority who believe religion is more harmful, while United States and South Africa had majority positive views.

(In passing, I can’t help wondering about this research, for a 2014 Australian survey by McCrindle had a very different result, with 91% of those surveyed saying that the church is beneficial to society. On the other hand, this Huffington Post survey supported the Ipsos findings for Great Britain that more than half Britons think religion does more harm than good. Perhaps the exact wording of the question makes a big difference to the response.)

Why?

The survey didn’t offer any reasons for the views expressed, but a 2011 Australian survey by McCrindle found that it was the attitudes and behaviour of christians and churches (sexual abuse, hypocrisy, judgmentalism) and irrelevance, not doubts about God or Jesus, that were the factors most likely to prevent belief.

The report on the HuffPost British survey quotes Linda Woodhead, a professor of the sociology of religion, as saying that “religion has become a ‘toxic brand’ in the UK”, for reasons which likely include sex scandals involving Catholic priests and rabbis, conflict in the Middle East and Islamist terror attacks and “religious leadership’s drift away from the liberal values, equality, tolerance, diversity”.

Sexual abuse

Ministers and priests have been implicated in horrific sexual abuse (along with teachers, sporting officials and others), and the recent publicity would likely have significantly affected many people’s responses. This is understandable, and churches now have the task of setting up processes to prevent (as much as possible) this abuse happening ever again, making reparation to the victims, and working on making more positive contributions to society.

Hypocrisy and judgmentalism

No-one, least of all Jesus, likes hypocrisy, and no-one likes being judged unfairly or insensitively. Because christianity (like most religions) requires strong moral attitudes that people will often fall short of, the church will always be open to the charges of being judgmental whenever ethics are discussed and hypocritical when christians fail to live up the their own standards.

The answer surely includes greater accountability and deeper humility, plus not trying to “push” christian ethics on unbelievers.

Liberal values, equality, tolerance, diversity

The western world has certainly moved away from traditional christian values, in the areas of sexual ethics and self satisfaction at least. Opposition to gay marriage and homosexuality generally, abortion, sex outside of marriage, divorce and materialism are areas of traditional christian ethics that are no longer popular, and christians are often seen as intolerant.

Christian attitudes are changing, sometimes on the moral questions, and sometimes at least on how christians respond to those who think differently. But a lot more work needs to be done in these areas to develop sensitive approaches and to develop more loving and servant-hearted responses.

6 reasons religion may do more harm than good?

Valerie Tarico, writing about the HuffPost survey in Salon suggests 6 reasons religion may do more harm than good:

1. Religion promotes tribalism

This is true, but it is actually more of a virtue than a vice. Sociologists of religion tell us that religion (religious rituals and practices, more than beliefs) assist human societies to be stable and sustainable by promoting shared values and bonding people together. Thus it is that religious people generally have “higher personal well-being, better family relationships, and lower suicide rates. … [Religion] primes us to be strongly bonded to the people around us, which is one of the single biggest predictors of personal happiness, health, and life satisfaction”.

The flip side of this closer bonding is tribalism, and the hostility that sometimes results from this. Avoiding tribalism has its downsides too. Researcher Connor Wood says: “secular countries have much higher suicide rates on average, and many of the ills of modern society – alienation, loneliness, frayed social fabric – are good candidates for symptoms of our rejection of small groups”.

So tribalism isn’t as bad as is often claimed, and is in many respects necessary and beneficial. And there are some indications that intrinsic religion (religion of the heart rather than social religion) may buffer people against tribalism, by promoting care for the outsider.

2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age

This is in some ways a pejorative and empty claim. The Iron Age is not precisely defined, as it occurred at different times around the world. But in the Middle East its dates are generally considered to be about 1200 BCE to 500 BCE. The Christian, Muslim, Baha’i and perhaps some of the Jewish scriptures all come from the Middle East later than this period. And age doesn’t necessarily show an idea is wrong or bad – after all, the wheel and democracy were invented a long time ago, but they are still good ideas!

Nevertheless, we know what the author is getting at. She refers to “superstition, ignorance, inequality, racism, misogyny, and violence. Slavery had God’s sanction. Women and children were literally possessions of men. Warlords practiced scorched earth warfare. Desperate people sacrificed animals, agricultural products, and enemy soldiers as burnt offerings intended to appease dangerous gods.” Then comes this interesting and damning statement:

Sacred texts including the Bible, Torah and Koran all preserve and protect fragments of Iron Age culture, putting a god’s name and endorsement on some of the very worst human impulses.

So if some believers in those religions still hold to all those “Iron Age” values, while unbelievers do not, she has a good point. But it isn’t quite that simple.

  • Few modern Jews hold to those values; certainly very few, if any, do animal sacrifices, or practice or support slavery. Many are somewhat agnostic about God. But they are still (often) practicing Jews.
  • Likewise, few christians support slavery or animal sacrifice, and an increasing number are recognising the problems with some Old Testament teachings and moving away from them in favour of a New Testament ethic. Many christians are, and have been, at the forefront of fighting slavery, misogyny, inequality and violence.
  • Nevertheless, it remains true that some christians still practice patriarchy, support violence (in the name of patriotism or law and order) and show superstitious attitudes in their opposition to evolution, climate change and social welfare.
  • Finally, it has to be recognised that the twentieth century was an extremely warlike period in which more people were killed than in any other century (admittedly largely because of the higher population and more destructive weapons), mostly at the hands of supposedly secular and civilised societies, some of them specifically atheist. Religious people have no monopoly on war or violence – in fact, studies show that both war and terrorism are only rarely caused by religion, though religion may play a role in justifying actions taken on other grounds.

These matters should be soberly considered by all religious believers, but the reality is not as simple as the author has made out.

3. Religion makes a virtue out of faith

Valerie says, quite correctly, that for the religious “Faith is a virtue.” But she then talks about the supposed war between science (which is factually based) and religion (which is not), without recognising that:

  • The two are not necessarily in conflict, otherwise religious people couldn’t be scientists and science followers.
  • Many christians (myself included) believe evidence and science support christian belief, so we are far from opposing science.
  • There are few religious beliefs that are directly contradicted by science (creation vs evolution is clearly one such case).
  • Faith and trust are indeed virtues which we value in everyday life. It requires a definition of “faith” as “blind and closed-minded faith” to make her arguments work, and many (most?) christians don’t fit that description.

Perhaps it would have been better for her to have said that religion can often encourage people to reject ideas that are in fact well established.

4. Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions

It is certainly true that unscrupulous televangelists can prey on the gullible and plenty of money is spent on religious buildings and activities. But studies show that religious people give more (both time and money) to both religious and secular charities. The evidence shows that it just doesn’t work out the way she says.

5. Religion teaches helplessness

There are surely times when believers wait and pray rather than act, but I don’t think it is characteristic that “religion inspires personal piety without social responsibility”. I have already pointed out that believers are more prosocial, that is, they contribute more to society as volunteers, than do non-believers. Christians have been active in establishing hospitals, trade unions and schools, fighting slavery and injustice and serving the poor and addicted.

So it seems that prayer and action often go together, and perhaps one inspires the other.

6. Religions seek power

I think this is often true, if we define “religions” as the corporate organisational structures of churches and denominations. But of course it is equally true that government, university, business and sporting structures also tend to attract people seeking power, so that their original “mission” is distorted.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of christian power structures is that followers of Jesus ought to know better, and ought to do better. Which in a way is a compliment to the teachings of Jesus even as it criticises organisations.

How many reasons?

So I conclude that this article is built on perceptions that are not always evidentially based. Sometimes the criticisms are true, but often they are not. But even when wrong, they are repeated, sound plausible, and are often believed.

It may be wrong but it can’t be ignored

So regardless of the rights and wrongs, these are issues that christians and churches need to consider seriously. Perceptions have a lot of influence, and can be hard to dispel.

It is surely time for christians and churches to listen as much as proclaim, and to “walk the talk”.

Photo by Hajran Pambudi on Unsplash

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