Moral failure of mainstream religion

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While many religions have ethical principles that are commendable, the day to day teachings and actions of religious leaders and rank-and-file believers betray these principles at almost every opportunity. Rather than address the pressing social issues of the time, religious believers would rather spend their time on unproductive side issues. This has occurred throughout history and continues in contemporary times.

Not only do religious believers generally fail to follow the golden rule, they also frequently fail to follow other more specific teachings on fighting poverty, injustice, loving other people (including strangers and foreigners) and the pursuit of peace. This is sometimes described as the "moral failure" of religion. Based on demographic data, crime rates and opinion polls, it appears that believers in mainstream religion are often more immoral than non-religious people.

"They [the mainstream Christian and Jewish denominations] have busied themselves with the boutique activism of the culture wars. They have failed to unequivocally denounce unfettered capitalism, globalization and pre-emptive war. The obsession with personal piety and “How-is-it-with-me?” spirituality that permeates most congregations is narcissism."

Chris Hedges [1]

In contrast, certain religious minority groups and individuals have worked tirelessly to address broad social issues. However, this argument refers to the failure of mainstream religion.

"Moral failure" is sometimes used to euphemistically refer to indiscretion of a religious leader, especially sexual infidelity. These matters are relatively trivial compared to the broader "moral failure" of mainstream religion.



Mainstream Christianity is slow to condemn war despite Jesus's teachings and example of being a pacifist. There is evidence that U.S. Christians are more pro-war than the non-religious.

"There is a significant relationship between self-reported frequency of church attendance and belief that the Iraq war was a mistake. In general, the more frequently an American attends church, the less likely he or she is to say the war was a mistake"

— Gallup, 2006 [2]

Beginning in 1095, the Crusades were a series of military expeditions directly initiated by the Catholic church. Many of them were attempts to recapture Jerusalem from Islamic states.

Few wars are opposed by mainstream religion, particularly in the critical build up stage where governments must rally popular support before committing their forces. Many industrialised countries have military forces currently engaged in neo-colonial operations but mainstream religions are not opposing these activities. Large religions are more likely to glorify rather than condemn war.


Many religions have poverty as a central theme. Holy books often call on believers to address poverty. While religion can claim it does encourage some forms of charity, it has failed to criticize many root causes of poverty and fails to call for steps to address it in a systemic fashion.

"I can only say that the communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the centre of the Gospel."

Pope Francis [3]

Some Christian leaders have begun to question capitalism [4] but it has taken hundreds of years to reach this stage and it is still not a mainstream issue of churches. Secular movements such as "occupy" have taken a strong stance and pre-empted religion on this issue. Mainstream religions have believers that use unethical or immoral monetary loans (Usury), even though this is traditionally forbidden and/or banned in holy books. Investments are often made in questionable companies, such as the Church of England investing in the backers of high interest "pay day" loan companies. [5]

Partly thanks to improved farming methods, the world produces enough to feed everyone. [6] Various policies prevent this food reaching people and they go hungry. Mainstream religion does not prioritize speaking out against these policies. In contrast to Jesus's strong emphasis on helping the poor, many Christians would rather blame the poor for their situation.

Main cause of poverty, according to various demographics[7]
Group Lack of effort Circumstances
U.S. white evangelical Protestants 53% 41%
U.S. Catholics 50% 45%
U.S. Atheists 31% 65%

Consumerism and materialism[edit]

Industrialised countries are able to produce large quantities of goods and luxury items. Many countries have a culture which strongly features consumerism. It is questionable if unlimited acquisition and consumption is beneficial for people, even in terms of happiness, and it is certainly harmful for the environment. Particularly recently, mainstream religion has generally neglected to speak out on this issue, does so only weakly or even encouraged consumerism at times. While theologians have generally had a negative view of consumerism, this view is not widely or strongly expressed or accepted by rank-and-file believers. It is were, the Christianity would be in strong opposition to mainstream American values. Religious critiques of consumerism are generally restricted to seeing it in spiritual terms as a source of competition, worldly or idolatrous, rather than being simply ineffective and counter-productive. Some Christian denominations openly embrace consumerism, particularly in Protestantism, Evangelical Christianity and Prosperity gospel churches.

"To say that Protestantism caused consumerism would be a tremendous overstatement. Protestants did not cause the new trend of consumerism and they could not control it. They did embrace it, nevertheless. [...] Evangelical Protestants may not have caused consumerism, but they contributed to its rise. [...] Christmas and Easter became heavily commercialized with little objection from the evangelical community. [...] The old Protestant ethic - hard work, frugality, self-denial, self-discipline, self responsibility, and plain living - were being pushed aside. [8]"

Employment rights[edit]

Improvements in employment and working conditions, and the end of child labor were pioneered by secular organisations such as unions [9] and not usually by religious groups. Appalling conditions persist in many places but mainstream religious groups rarely speak on this issues.

Intolerance and persecution[edit]

Society often has significant anti-immigration, xenophobia, racist, anti-minority, anti-homosexual, anti-atheist attitudes. This is contrary to teachings of several religions but is not a high priority for religious teachers or believers. Loving people within one's religion and ethnic group seems to take priority.

A few extreme cases of intolerance by religious believers will now be described. However, it is important to note that intolerance occurs to this day and applies to most believers in mainstream religion (and arguably everyone else). If mainstream religion was beneficial to moral behaviour, we might expect to see differences between believers and non-believers.

Christianity has long had a general acceptance of antisemitism, largely based on the idea that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. This argument was spread by Justin the Martyr, Origen, John Chrysostom, [10] St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and many other Christian writers. These doctrines were officially sanctioned and strengthened in the 10th-11th centuries. The Roman empire tolerated Jews until Christianity gained a significant influence. It took until 1965 for the Catholic church to declare that contemporary Jews were not to he held responsible for the death of Jesus. [11] From 1140, Jews were persecuted by Christians based on moral panics around the myth of blood libel. Islam also has problems with widespread antisemitism. [12]

Initiated in 1250s, the Inquisition refers to various institutions in the Catholic church to promote orthodoxy and persecute heretics, potential apostates and Jews. During the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, these institutions were active in many questionable activities including torture to gain forced confessions (although less than other tribunals of the time), execution of thousands of people by burning people alive, confiscation of property, forced exile, imprisonment, anonymous denunciation and censorship. The last execution by the Inquisition was in 1826.

Witch hunts, which were significant in Europe and America from around 1400 to 1700, are investigation and punishment of people who supposedly possessed magical powers. They were largely motivated by superstition and moral panic. During this time, 70,000 to 100,000 people, mostly women, were executed and others imprisoned. Witch hunts also occurred in antiquity and continue to contemporary times.

While persecution of minorities has become less in some mainstream religions, they do not go far enough in addressing prejudice in wider society. Many religious communities still find it acceptable to persecute or shun minority groups such as homosexuals and atheists.


Christians in the US are less likely than atheists to consider CIA treatment of detainees as torture. Christians are more likely than atheists to claim that the use of torture is justified.

"Just 39% of white evangelicals believe the CIA’s treatment of detainees amounted to torture, with 53% of white non-evangelical Protestants and 45% of white Catholics agreeing with that statement. Among the non-religious, though, 72% said the treatment amounted to torture. [...] Sixty nine percent of white evangelicals believe the CIA treatment was justified, compared to just 20% who said it was not. [...] But a majority of non-religious adults, 53%, believe the CIA actions were not justified, with 41% of the non-religious saying the treatment was justified. [13]"
"I now favor capital punishment, at least in principle, but only in extreme cases when no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice. [...] Capital justice, I have come to believe, is part of that non-negotiable standard. A moral obligation requires civil government to punish crime, and consequently, to enforce capital punishment, albeit under highly restricted conditions. Fallible humans will continue to work for justice. But fallible as the system might be, part of the Christian's task is to remind surrounding culture that actions indeed have consequences - in this life and the life to come. [14]"

This is ironic considering Jesus was effectively tortured to death.


Mainstream religions were generally slow to support the abolition of slavery.

"The Bible treats slavery as a social fact (which it was at the time), and over the centuries religious leaders and communities held slaves and (often with qualifications) condoned the practice. One could legitimately argue that this was a major moral failing on religion's part. [15]"

Some writers claimed that secular society gradually became against slavery and the oppression of women, prompting Christianity to follow suit. [16] Other writers dispute this, pointing out that various minority sects and papal pronouncements from 1435 onward had banned slavery. [15] This does not explain why a supposedly moral institution took centuries to condemn slavery.

Freedoms and human rights[edit]

Religious believers have not usually used their religion as a spring board to campaign for political or personal freedoms. In many cases, these freedoms were opposed because they were seen as a threat to theocratic or religious institutions.

"Religious traditions have incorporated a deep yearning for social justice that can inspire the debates of today. [...] In practice, of course, religious communities have not always supported democracy and human rights. My own church, the Roman Catholic Church, was long opposed to human rights in general and religious liberty in particular. [17]"

On the other hand, many leaders and protesters of the 2014 Hong Kong Occupy protests were Christian and some claim their belief was an inspiration to protest. [18]

Many but not all Islamic institutions are against freedom of religion. The Qur'an recognises that people should not be forced to convert to Islam. Surah 2:256 Bible-icon.png There is strong support among Muslims for the principle that other religious may worship freely. [19] However, Muslims are often forbidden from changing religions by religious or state institutions. Capital punishment for apostasy is supported by majority Muslim opinion in many countries, including Egypt and Jordan. [19] Proselytizing by other religions is also opposed by many Islamic institutions.

The freedom of speech is also not generally recognised and instead the concept of freedom from religious defamation is promoted, which is an abridgement of freedom of speech. Many Muslims think that criticism of Islam or Muhammad should not be permitted. Support for this is 58% among US Muslims, [20] and 62% of British Muslims. [21]

Gender rights[edit]

Mainstream religion has been slow to address misogyny and gender rights more generally. Most Muslims outside Europe believe that wives should "obey their husbands". [19]

Mainstream religions have been slow to recognise and speak out against marital rape. Many religions do not recognise the principle of consent in determining if sex is rape.


Environmental conservation is not a common issue for mainstream religion, despite the high rate of loss of habitats, mass extinctions and climate change.

Personal health[edit]

Religion has little to say about personal health (beyond obsolete ritual cleaning). This is becoming an important social issue as many illnesses in industrialized countries are caused by life style choices. Inaction on this issue is itself a moral failure of mainstream religion.


Colonialism, or even just its negative aspects, were not opposed by most mainstream religions, probably because it was an opportunity to gain converts.

"we can infer that in the African context colonialism, religion, and social justice complemented one another, in as much as Christian missionaries' ideas of social justice harmonized with the "civilizing" agenda of European expansionists. As a result, Christianity has been described as a major facilitator of European colonialism. [22]"

Death penalty[edit]

Mainstream religion has generally failed to call for the end to capital punishment. This may be because the death penalty is endorsed by many holy texts. Among Christians, support for the death penalty in the US was lower for those who attended church regularly. Support for the death penalty was higher for Protestants (71%) than among Catholics (66%). However, atheists had lower support (57%) for capital punishment than Christians. [23] Again, this is ironic since Jesus was executed.


Although technically banned in most religions, the buying and selling of religious offices became widespread in the 9th and 10th centuries within the Catholic Church, as well as within the Church of England. [24] This is referred to as simony. The practice reduced after reforms were introduced. These positions were often funded by the sale of indulgences or relics.


Nazi oppression of Jews was largely religiously motivated and generally accepted or tolerated by mainstream Churches of the time.

The general tactic by the leadership of both Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany was caution with respect to protest and compromise with the Nazi state leadership where possible. [...] Yet throughout this period there was virtually no public opposition to antisemitism or any readiness by church leaders to publicly oppose the regime on the issues of antisemitism and state-sanctioned violence against the Jews. There were individual Catholics and Protestants who spoke out on behalf of Jews, and small groups within both churches that became involved in rescue and resistance activities (for example, the White Rose and Herman Maas).

After 1945, the silence of the church leadership and the widespread complicity of "ordinary Christians" compelled leaders of both churches to address issues of guilt and complicity during the Holocaust—a process that continues internationally to this day. [25]

Pope Pius XII was the leader of the Catholic church before and during world war 2. He is sometimes accused by writers, such as John Cornwell, of not doing enough to publicly oppose the Nazi regime. His defenders point out that he spoke out against war but was limited in what he could achieve, given that Italy was allied with the Nazi government. Pius XII provided discrete assistance to Jews, resistance fighters and allied forces. While political expedience and self interest was a likely explanation for the pope's actions, this does not excuse his lack of condemnation of Naziism - which in modern times is often used as an example of "pure evil". The pope's actions compares poorly to (exceptional and rare) Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed the Nazis on moral grounds and was executed as a result.


Christianity has had a complex relationship with prohibition. The US experiment with alcohol prohibition (1920-1933) was initiated after pressure from various temperance movements. Some of these organizations were overtly religious, such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The problem with prohibition is that it often aggravate the problem, rather than mitigating it. The US prohibition experiment was generally considered a failure and eventually abandoned.

"The 19th century was a time for great religious revivals and the preaching of the gospel often went hand in hand with condemnations of sin, of which drinking was seen as one of the leaders and a vice that led to debauchery. Baptist churches, the Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists all had either a semi-official policy condemning drinking or at least leading preachers from their ranks who supported the ban on all alcohol. German Lutherans, who had a European cultural fondness for beer, did not join the crusade, nor did the majority of Episcopalians. Roman Catholic authorities, many of whom drew support from wine-drinking immigrant groups from Spain, France and Italy, actively opposed the ban. [26]"

Current Christian views on drug prohibition ranges widely (as it does in the general population) with some religious leaders calling for continuation of prohibition [27] and others calling for decriminalization. [28]

Child sex abuse[edit]

Since around 2000, the world media has been reporting on widespread child sexual abuse committed by priests. The abuse mostly occurred between 1950 and 1980. At the time of abuse, the age of the victims was typically between 11 and 14 [29] but was as low as 3 years old. While it is arguable that an institution cannot control every act of their followers, mainstream religious institutions have been heavily criticised for covering up child abuse and protecting the perpetrators. The urge to protect religious institutions was apparently greater than justice for the victims or preventing further child abuse.

"It is the long-held view of Cardinal George Pell and other senior Catholic officials that the sexual abuse crisis is an issue primarily about the moral failure of individual priests and not related to church culture itself. [30]"
"In some cases in the past, if it became known that a priest was alleged to have molested a child or chilren, he was simply move by his bishop to another parish, where the sexual abuse usally contuned unabated. Some abusers were moved repeatedly, but often with the same effect: continued child sexual abuse. [31]"


Modern religion usually differs significantly from the founding beliefs. This is largely due to a mainstream religion necessarily having a wide appeal and therefore having views that do not prohibit typical human behaviour, founded on common human psychology. Any difficult teachings were paid mere lip service, particularly when they became inconvenient. For instance, it was necessarily for Christianity to largely abandon pacifism when it was adopted by the Roman empire, which was itself a militarised society.

"After Christianity became the religion of the majority in the [Roman] empire, moral perfection was clearly not achieved. Rather, general patterns of conduct seem to have remained static, even to have sunk in some respects, although moral exhortation took place with far more vigor and reached a much wider audience. [...] Codes initially devised for a small, closed society became obsolete or inexpedient when extended to the masses. [32]"

In modern times, mainstream religions are often friendly with powerful political forces (or are unwilling to antagonise them) and are slow to condemn government policy. Another factor is the holy books were written in a comparatively backward time and are not suitable guides for modern social problems. Also, holy books tend to be contradictory and leave room for believers to pick and choose their beliefs. Scriptures are also reinterpreted to the point of meaning anything a reader desires. These make mainstream religion an unsound basis for ethical action.

Different denominations of a religion tend not to point out the moral failure of other denominations, since this would be unproductive in achieving their own self interested goals.

Apologists' response[edit]

Apologists argue that free will, in that people can choose to disobey God. This defence does not apply because believers should know what God wants and are attempting to please God. This should result in believers behaving, perhaps less than perfectly, but better than non-believers. This is not observed.

Supposedly, we live in a fallen world, which supposedly explain why Christians do bad things. Again, it does not explain why Christians are often worse than atheists in their moral beliefs and actions!

Various atrocities could be explained away as "a few bad apples". Alternatively, religious institutions try to portray actions as not quite so bad. However, this does not excuse religion's overall failure to address social injustice. Inaction to address injustice over many millennia is hard to spin.

Another argument to defend religious inaction is to claim that good actions must come from the individual and Christians should not be collectively coerced into good actions. According to some apologists, this prevents Christians from using taxation to solve poverty.

"One reason Christians should not mix the gospel and the government is that true compassion for the poor should always be motivated by the love of Jesus Christ. When the poor receive help, Jesus should get the credit. How is the Great Commission fulfilled and how is the gospel proclaimed by a government check from a Washington bureaucrat? [33]"

Other apologists disagree saying human sinfulness makes taxation necessary. [34]

Some believers claim that a failure of one denomination to address social problems is distinct from their own denomination. While no mainstream denomination is shown itself to be significantly more moral than any other, it does raise the question as to why different denominations exist at all.

Apologists may claim that atheists are also immoral. Apart from being a tu quoque argument, it also fails to explain why religion is no more moral (and many times less moral) than atheism.

Saying that a minority of believers happened to adopt a progressive social policy is significant is the Texas sharpshooter fallacy - we should expect most or all believers to be calling for these social changes throughout history but this did not occur.

One defence of religion used by fundamentalists involves claiming the ethical systems in holy books or espoused by a religion are superior to contemporary or liberal ethics. This argument is used by traditionalists to call for a return to ethical systems recorded on scripture, such as sharia law. It is certainly difficult to establish that any moral system is objectively superior to another (at least without an argument from authority). It is interesting to note that even by a religion's own internal moral standards, they usually are miserably deficient. For instance, Christians and Jews often selectively apply the Old and New Testament.

Another defence is claim that we cannot judge the morality of current or past institutions because God works in mysterious ways. This is an example of Loki's wager.

Many believers are simply ignorant of these issues and are happy to continue to believe their religion is moral.

Judging historical religion by modern standards[edit]

It is questionable if historical religious institutions and practices should be judged by modern ethical standards. This is sometimes labelled as presentism and typically avoided by historians. [35] This comparison is enabled by religion's claim to absolute morality and moral realism. If we are willing to abandon these concepts, it is entirely valid to claim that the Medieval period "was a different time" and it is not appropriate to compare it to current standards of behaviour. However, religions generally do subscribe to the idea of moral realism. If that assumption is allowed and we write in a ethical but not necessarily historical context, comparison of morality between different time periods and places is valid.

Even if this defense is used for historical failures of mainstream religion, it does not apply to present day moral failures.


  1. Chris Hedges, After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck With Nietzsche, Truthdig, May 9, 2010 [1]
  2. Protestants and Frequent Churchgoers Most Supportive of Iraq War, Gallup, March 16, 2006
  3. [2]
  4. [3]
  5. [4]
  6. [5]
  7. [6]
  8. Richard Kyle, Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity, 2006
  9. [7]
  10. [8]
  11. [9]
  12. [10]
  13. [11]
  14. [12]
  15. 15.0 15.1 [13]
  16. [14]
  17. [15]
  18. [16]
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Pew, The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, 2013
  20. [17]
  21. [18]
  22. Brigid M. Sackey, chater Colonialism in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Social Justice, 2012
  23. [19]
  24. Rev. Mr. Nesbit, Question of Simony from the Parish of Marykirk, The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, 1773
  25. [20]
  26. [21]
  27. [22]
  28. [23]
  29. A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States (John Jay Report), 2004
  30. [24]
  31. Robin E. Clark, Judith Freeman Clark, Christine A. Adamec, The Encyclopedia of Child Abuse, 3rd edition, 2007
  32. Gérard Vallée, The Shaping of Christianity: The History and Literature of Its Formative Centuries
  33. [25]
  34. Esther D Reed, chapter Tax and international justice in Tax for the common good, A study of tax and morality, October 2014
  35. [26]

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