Religion is harmful to society
Religion, when considered overall, may cause more harm in society and for individuals than the benefits it produces. Not every religion or religious belief may result in all, or even any of these harms. Many of these problems are or would be present in absence of religion, and some are even systemic to society. Therefore harm includes that which is caused religion, as well as harm aggravated by religion.
The fact that religion is harmful makes the conclusion of Pascal's Wager much more ambiguous. Therefore, these are not limited to harms . It also should be noted than none of these address the accuracy of any religious claim.
The opposing view is that religious belief is beneficial to society overall.
- "Christianity is most admirably adapted to the training of slaves, to the perpetuation of a slave society; in short, to the very conditions confronting us to-day. Indeed, never could society have degenerated to its present appalling stage, if not for the assistance of Christianity. [...] Christianity is the conspiracy of ignorance against reason, of darkness against light, of submission and slavery against independence and freedom; of the denial of strength and beauty, against the affirmation of the joy and glory of life."
"If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."
- — Voltaire
- 1 Opinion polls
- 2 Harmful outcomes of religion
- 2.1 Societies with higher well-being are less religious
- 2.2 Promotes backward and harmful policies
- 2.3 Magical Thinking
- 2.4 Mythology
- 2.5 Teaches conformity
- 2.6 Participation in religion supports harmful regimes and institutions
- 2.7 False authority figures
- 2.8 Resource consumption
- 2.9 Possibly link to the agricultural revolution
- 2.10 Reinforces segregation
- 2.11 Creates negative peer groups
- 2.12 Teaches judgmental ideas
- 2.13 Teaches postponement of enjoyment
- 2.14 Makes certain ideas unquestionable
- 2.15 Rejects scientific facts and medical help
- 2.16 Supports incorrect history
- 2.17 Increases crime and decreases moral behavior
- 2.18 Unprotected sex, teenage sex
- 2.19 Increased divorce rate
- 2.20 Animal cruelty
- 2.21 Encourages fundamentalism
- 2.22 Facilitates child abuse
- 2.23 Prevents a fuller exploration of spirituality
- 3 Counter-arguments
- 4 References
- 5 See also
In a 2010 poll of a sample from 23 nations found that many countries had a majority view that "religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions, and impede social progress in developing and developed nations alike". Some countries had a high level of agreement, such as Sweden at 81%. The lowest agreement was in Saudi Arabia (8%). 
A 2014 survey of 2,004 UK adults found that most people thought religion causes more harm than good (51.6%), with 24.2% saying it causes more good than harm, with 24.2% don't know. 
Harmful outcomes of religion
Societies with higher well-being are less religious
According to many studies, societies with higher well-being are less religious.
- "According to this multivariate analysis which takes into account a plethora of indicators of societal well-being, those states in America with the worst quality of life tend to be among the most God-loving/most religious (such as Mississippi and Alabama), while those states with the best quality of life tend to among the least God-loving/least religious (such as Vermont and New Hampshire).[...] those democratic nations today that are the most secular, such as Scandinavia, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, etc., are faring much better on nearly every single indicator of well-being imaginable than the most religious nations on earth today, such as Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Malawi, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc."
However, we should be careful to avoid arguing correlation is causation. It could be that adverse circumstances makes religion more appealing.
Promotes backward and harmful policies
Religions often campaign on diverse topics as clothing, homosexuality, sexuality, abortion, contraception (which causes more unwanted children and STIs) and women's rights. Religion has been used to defend slavery, racial segregation, sexual discrimination, discrimination against homosexuals, protection of gun rights, both for and against capital punishment, denying scientific research (in general and in specific areas such as stem cell research), subverting science education, undermining sex education and many other diverse topics. This policies have no justification aside from religious dogma that was invented centuries ago to address a very different context than the one we face today. Absolute ideals not only lead to fanaticism, but are unrealistic in a complicated world. More often than not, they are promoting the traditionalist interests of powerful groups.
When challenged on their harmful policies, they claim religion as a shield, by claiming if their political beliefs are challenged, that their religion is under attack.
Dissuades societal improvement
Some political thinkers, such as Antonio Gramsci, have argued that Christianity is a barrier to society improvement. If the world is going to end or governed by fate, then people see no need to prevent or repair difficult problems, such as protecting the environment, conserving resources or investing in long-term research. Believers are encouraged to accept the inevitability of human suffering as part of the cosmic order or the will of God. Some teachings say that victimhood is praiseworthy and evil should not be resisted (e.g. Matthew 5:38-42 ).
Other religious leaders argue against improvement as it distracts from spiritual priorities.
Religion opens the door to magical thinking, by allowing oneself to accept that the lack of disproof makes something "possible" or somehow a 50-50 chance. Many religions specifically teach that believing things with no evidence ("faith") is actually the best thing, and that if evidence contradicts a belief, the evidence should be discounted. This undermines the pursuit of science, and retards progress. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to literalist belief, such as belief in talking snakes, that people can live inside of whales and that killing infants can be justified (Hosea 13:16 , 1 Samuel 15:3 and Psalm 137:9 ).
Religions often teach myths and falsehoods as truth. Creationism and the "Great Flood" have been disproved for a hundred years, yet those beliefs continue to be common (46% of Americans believe the earth was created in the last 10,000 years, and 60% believe in the literal Great Flood). Historically, it took an equal amount of time to achieve the general acceptance that the sun is the center of the solar system and that the earth moves through space. A particularly damaging example is the concept that mankind was kicked out of the Garden of Eden, which implies that the earth is a prison, and does not deserve to be respected. Other examples include the inferiority of women, unfounded dangers of psychology and faith healing.
Religions teach not to question their teachings. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) teach that mankind is literally punished and suffer disease and death due to thinking. Teaching against gaining knowledge and having independent thought leads to black and white thinking in all aspects of life, such as immigration is bad, lower/higher taxes on the rich result in a stronger economy or guns cause/prevent crime. While a person may reach any of these conclusions on their own, religion tends towards simplistic absolute answers. This also leads to a general avoidance of solving the root cause of difficult social problems, and instead a focus on symptoms (e.g. focusing on gun control to prevent crime, to the exclusion of addressing poverty, mental health or organized crime).
Participation in religion supports harmful regimes and institutions
Participating in religious activities often requires financial or moral support to be given to countries and institutions that use this influence for questionable purposes. For instance, performing pilgrimages in countries provides wealth to their economy that can be used by repressive regimes that export extremism and terror. This arguably makes the pilgrims complicit in that country's activities. One such example is the hajj in Saudi Arabia, which accounts for about 3% of their GDP and indirectly funds its promotion of Salafi extremism and its involvement in regional conflicts. On the other hand, the state does not apparently fund terror groups directly and it is unfair to boycott an entire country because of the actions of a minority. (Not to mention industrial countries' dependence on oil provides far more funding to Saudi Arabia than comes from pilgrimages.)
- "It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority [...] donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."
Religious authority figures are given respect as subject-matter experts in everything. That is to say, if you want to know about particle physics, people would naturally trust the answers of a physicist over a soy-bean farmer. However, on the topic of planting crops, you would naturally trust the farmer over the physicist. People have an innate ability to weight the reliability of the source of information. However, ministers skew this reaction, despite not having subject matter expertise. People often ask the opinion of religious leaders about parenting, marriage, philosophy, sociology, etc. Aside from receiving potentially bad counseling advice or misinformation, ministers can unduly influence politics. 79% of Christian Americans believe it's an obligation to vote Republican. As an example, people have given millions to Billy Graham based solely on his claim that God needed the money, a pastor has attempted to cure children of gayness by having sex with them, or stay in bad marriages, all based on false expertise. In addition, people who claim expertise as psychologists or medical practitioners require being licensed, creating a bias towards religion for those unable to afford a properly trained professional.
- Main Article: Religion is a waste of resources
Religions are a huge consumer of resources. There are nearly three times the number of churches than gas stations. In addition, $93 billion is donated to churches per year. This is dwarfed by the $111 billion per week in manpower consumed by church attendance. The weekly cost nearly exceeds the combined annual total for non-religious charity. It cannot be overstated the effect all this money and resources would have combating homelessness, hunger or even unemployment. In addition, churches consume societal infrastructure while being tax-exempt, creating a bias of benefit for the religious, since other social groups may not be tax exempt or have a higher burden to attain tax exemptions.
Religion comes with ritualistic dogma. Circumcision, baptisms, confirmations, fasting, dietary restrictions, dress restrictions and hygienic practices are all common. Although many of these may not directly cause harm, they generally needlessly consume time and resources. Some are directly harmful, such as drinking poison, snake handling or female genital mutilation.
Around 10,000 BCE, a number of societies began to transition from hunter gatherer to agricultural production of food. This brought about many changes in lifestyle, including permanent settlement of villages. The change also brought about a drop in living standards since farming required intensive labour, the crop sometimes failed and villagers were more prone to disease. Some historians argue that one motivation for this change was to support religions monuments such as Göbekli Tepe, since agriculture could support a larger local population. On the other hand, early religious beliefs seem to predate the agricultural revolution.
Religions create a select group of people and they usually treat people within their own religion better than outsiders (known as in-group favoritism). While people have historically grouped by race, politics, region, language, economic status, and other methods, religion creates a false grouping. Religion allows for divisions among peoples where there is no discernible difference aside from being indoctrinated to seemingly minor differences in interpretations of a holy book. While at times, this can be a good thing, inclusion tends to be based on extremely narrow beliefs, which leads tends to reinforce and maintain segregation.
- "For example, religious participation also often inspires people to be prejudiced against outsiders and minorities. In a 1950s study, the psychologist Gordon Allport showed that religious people were much more prejudiced against minority groups and foreigners than non-religious people. And in perhaps the most disconcerting study cited by Bloom, a research team recently found that exposing subjects to religiously themed words actually increased their levels of prejudice against African-Americans. [... However,] Religiosity that emphasized external rewards and social acceptance was associated with negative feelings toward members of other races, while religiousness that was focused on internal, subjective goals wasn’t."
Creates negative peer groups
Religions create groupings of people with false ideals, such as those who are misogynist or anti-homosexual. This allows self-validation for ideas that are otherwise self-serving, with of little or no societal benefit. This distorts political policies and restrains the advancement of society.
Teaches judgmental ideas
Religions tend to be judgmental in general, with the Abrahamic religions particularly bad. It is built into the religions at a fundamental level. Those who are outside, are inherently bad, and will go to hell. Atheists, despite being proportionately less likely to commit crimes and proportionately more educated, are less trusted than even rapists. In general, it helps to create and maintain an idea that people are bad, or people have bad traits, rather than people's actions leading to harm.
Teaches postponement of enjoyment
Belief in the afterlife is extremely common among religions. This teaches people to not only postpone enjoyment, it also provides people with an excuse to not help those in need, due to the concept that if they deserve help, they will receive it after they die. In extreme cases, is can lead to martyrdom, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and suicide attacks on abortion clinics. Conversely, a belief in a punishment during the afterlife can to lead an extreme fear of death.
Makes certain ideas unquestionable
Religion makes certain ideas such as retributive justice unquestioned today even outside it's original religious context.
Rejects scientific facts and medical help
Supports incorrect history
Increases crime and decreases moral behavior
Religious belief is associated with increased violent crime.
A study of 1200 children from six countries found that children with a religious upbringing were less altruistic and more punitive than non-religious children.
Unprotected sex, teenage sex
Increased divorce rate
A 1999 Barna study found that religious Americans had a much higher divorce rate than atheists and agnostics.
Many religions require meat to be ritually slaughtered which causes unnecessary distress to animals.
Other religions hold that certain animals are ritually unclean, e.g. dogs in the view of Islam, which is used as a pretext for cruelty to animals. However, animal cruelty may be a cultural rather than religious issue since the Qur'an generally encourages good treatment of animals.
- Main Article: Moderate religion legitimizes fundamentalism
Even moderate interpretations of religious belief encourage fundamentalism because it provides the foundational beliefs, such as certain religious ideas do not need to be or cannot be questioned, that fundamentalism relies upon.
Facilitates child abuse
- Main Article: Child abuse
Institutional religion allows child sex offenders to operate and covers up their misdeeds. 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 but was as young as 3 years old. The Catholic church, being the largest denomination in Christianity, is the church of a significant proportion of abusers.
The Catholic church's response to abusive priests was often to cover up the abuse, using a "code of silence" and transferring the priests into new areas where they sometimes continued to abuse children. Information concerning criminal acts was not passed to the police. The motivation for the cover up is often to protect the religious institution. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child said:
- "[The Vatican] has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by, and the impunity of, the perpetrators"
Prevents a fuller exploration of spirituality
"Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities."
Negative effects of religion is a symptom and not a cause
As claimed by Robert Scheer, extremist "religion became a response to policies pursued by others" and isn't necessarily the underlying cause of social problems.  Sam Harris responded that policy makers are also influenced by religion.
Harris noted that many terrorists of all levels of seniority are middle class, educated and not driven by poverty or personal desperation. Chris Hedges responds by saying this is a false stereotype: most suicide bombers in Gaza are not middle class and were motived by the awful conditions in Gaza not religion, while the 9/11 attackers were without cultural roots and this left them open to manipulation.
- "[An] anti-natural morality which conceives of God as the counter-concept and condemnation of life is only a value judgment of life — but of what life? of what kind of life? I have already given the answer: of declining, weakened, weary, condemned life."
Religious belief is beneficial
Religion is arguably beneficial overall to society and individuals. It is difficult for people to agree on how to determine the criteria to measure religion objectively. It is possible that confirmation bias affects one or both sides of the debate.
Negative actions are not representative of a religion
Negative actions may be carried out by a minority group in a religion and it is arguably unfair to condemn the entire religion based on their actions.
This criticism can be avoided by systematic investigation of the effects of religion rather than unsystematic testimony or hearsay.
"Religion makes good people better and bad people worse."
- — Reinhold Niebuhr
Claiming that religion cannot be criticised because it is a complex issue without justifying that claim is an example of Loki's wager. However, if critics of religion can be shown to be making hasty generalizations or specifically how they are over-simplifying, this is not Loki's wager.
- "They will talk about things like how religion intersects with culture, how it can have positive effects, how it is never-quite-that-simple™"
- Emma Goldman, The Failure of Christianity, 1913
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, A Belief History of Humankind, 2011
- Dave Niose, Misinformation and facts about secularism and religion, March 30, 2011
- A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States (John Jay Report), 2004
- Religion and Politics: The End of the World? A Truthdig Debate, Royce Hall, UCLA, May 22, 2007 
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Morality as Anti-nature
- Atheism causes evil
- Some religions are more harmful than others
- Moral failure of mainstream religion
- Religious belief is harmful to the individual
- Why can't everyone just have their own beliefs?
- Intellectual responsibility