In my blog titled Responsible Atheism I argued that religious belief is psychologically harmful. I want to expand on my justification in this essay. My strategy is to simply use what we know about psychology, appreciating that the naturally negative effects of certain beliefs on the brain do not go away just because the object of our thoughts and emotions is a supernatural being instead of a human one. Time-tested principles of psychology do not permit a distinction there. Let’s look at some of these psychological harms one at a time.
Believing that you are born flawed, from sin, and that you must rely on someone else for your own salvation, is dehumanizing.
Depending entirely on someone else for your happiness or well-being can’t be healthy. You should believe in yourself – in your own resilience and abilities. It is perfectly acceptable and necessary to lean on others in times of trouble. One should study the life experiences and wisdom of others to grow intellectually and emotionally. That, however, is not the same thing as believing you are irredeemably defective without someone else. Being in a relationship where you think your mate is so morally or intellectually superior to you is a detriment to healthy self-esteem. When we see someone in a relationship like this, we think, “That’s sad; that person should have more confidence than that.” Those who constantly look outward for self-fulfillment will never get what they are searching for until they look inward and trust their own capacities for strength. Relying on friends and family, leaning on others, and gaining strength from their love and support is a beautiful part of life. Believing that you are born from sin is profoundly negative and not conducive to self-esteem. What is conducive to self-esteem is feeling unbounded in one’s capacity to learn and improve.As much as we learn and live, there will always be something we can learn from someone else. It’s not that we are defective or inherently sinful - we just can’t know everything. This is a much more empowering perspective because there is no inherent defect within us, only room for improvement. Is God like a Disney prince who has to come save us before we can have a fulfilling life?
The belief that God has a plan for everyone diminishes the feeling of obligation to intervene where there is suffering. (Why do something so pompous as to interfere with God’s “great” plan?)
Theism implies outsourcing moral and intellectual responsibility. With God at the wheel, why try to steer too? Still, some ambitious people will steer society, and sometimes they do it in God’s name. The rich and powerful have notoriously championed belief in a divine plan in order to keep the weak and disadvantaged complacent. The institution of slavery is a fine example of how belief in God’s plan kept millions of people in abysmal circumstances. Besides the fact that slavery is explicitly condoned in both the Old and New Testament, the belief that what happens to you is part of a divine plan could obviate one’s responsibility to take action. There were slave rebellions; it is not surprising that people would rebel against others’ interpretations of God’s will. Plenty of slaves understood that their subjugation was wrong. They either knew it despite the Bible and its pro-slavery passages or they attended to Bible passages that condemned slavery (parts that championed the plight of the weak, such as “the meek shall inherit the earth”). So with a book as inconsistent as the Bible, we still have to use our own knowledge of right and wrong. If God has a plan, no one can really know what it is, even when using the same holy book as a guide. So we are far better off using our own brains to figure out morality and justice. Thankfully, we do this most of the time anyway, believers and non-believers alike. To believe that God has an ascertainable plan has had, and will always have, deleterious consequences.
Belief in an afterlife necessarily devalues life here on earth and would diminish motivation to change the status quo.
I was once told by a religious person that life would have no meaning if there was nothing beyond it. Not all believers take such a morose view. However, if there is infinite joy or bliss (or whatever this psychologically impossible state is), to be had when one leaves this earth, why worry too much about worldly states of affairs? It’s unfortunate that the environment is going to hell, so to speak, but thank goodness earth is temporary housing until the great beyond – an environment nothing short of perfection! “Heaven” and “hell” were manipulative tools invoked by those in power long ago to diminish social or political protest. Ultimate justice is a very dangerous promise to believe in because it makes people complacent when justice is not achieved here on earth. Millions of people have gone through their lives not challenging their oppressor or abuser because they believe God would punish them. I couldn’t make the point better than self-liberated slave, abolitionist, author, and intellectual Frederick Douglass, who famously said “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Belief in heaven and hell causes life-long anxiety for many believers.
Some religious believers live with unrelenting existential anxiety. They aren’t sure whether their virtues and good deeds merit eternal reward, damnation, or purgatory. For example, a college friend of mine was a really good person and she feared that she’d go to hell because she was gay. She had lived with that anxiety since she was quite young, having been raised Catholic. I tried to tell her how a god who would send her to hell for being herself cannot be a good God. Her reply was that she couldn’t know God’s reasoning, but he is all-knowing so his logic had to be right and hers mistaken. How sad and confusing. The Bible says we should stone homosexuals.Even though stoning is now considered a barbaric punishment (except in a few countries), discrimination is alive and well. Many people brought up in religion, especially young children, live in fear that they may do, feel, or think something that would keep them out of heaven. Questioning God’s existence or Christ’s love is a cardinal sin. Some Christians catch hell from friends and family for daring to question their religion. No one should have to worry they’ll go to hell for their thoughts. People are terrified of losing the approval of their friends and family, so they suppress what they really think to avoid rejection. Thinking and questioning makes us human and it is necessary for psychological and intellectual health.
Belief in God offers false hope and, when prayers to help others aren’t answered, this can lead to feelings of profound guilt that one didn’t pray hard enough or in the right way.
When a believer’s prayer doesn’t seem to have been answered, he/she will have to find some complicated explanation as to why, even though what was specifically asked for didn’t happen, God has brought about different circumstances that are even better in the long run. When prayers do seem to be answered, this is nothing more than what psychologists call “confirmation bias”: the psychological tendency we all have to seek out information that confirms what we already believe to be true and filter out conflicting data. This incidentally is one of the same principles behind the “Design Argument” for God. Believers want to credit God for the lovely features of this planet like the pretty blue sky and gorgeous mountain ranges, but not for the countless horrors that befall the earth and its inhabitants (e.g., natural disasters; diseases that have taken billions of lives, including hundreds of millions of innocent children). Somehow the pretty skies and flowers are supposed to make up for tsunamis and tornados and cancers that wreak havoc on the earth and its inhabitants. If a believer could count up how many times his prayers were seemingly answered and how many times they weren’t, he would see that overwhelmingly they are not. And if the believer insists that they were answered in some way, but we just can’t know God’s plan, this is a meritless response because there is no evidence for divine intervention (by definition). Belief in prayer is especially psychologically harmful for young impressionable people who want something badly. If they don’t get what they pray for - for natural reasons, not divine ones, - they may feel immensely frustrated and confused about why God won’t help them. They might conclude that they aren’t praying hard enough, or in the right way, or that God is rejecting them by not helping. Worse still, consider a believer praying for someone else’s life condition to improve. If no help comes, again due to natural reasons, the believer may feel profound guilt that there is something wrong with them because god didn’t answer their desperate heartfelt desperate prayer. (Did that person not deserve the help?) Telling people to pray is offering them false hope. We all agree that false hope is a bad thing because it makes failure hurt so much more, and the energy spent on false hope could have been spent in productive ways.
Worship of any being threatens human integrity. Unqualified subservience and devotion are not commendable; such subjugation is dangerous.
The Bible depicts human beings as perpetual children, constantly dependent on a father god. I’m an adult and, even if I was a child, I was raised not to submit to authority without evidence that the authority knows best. Believers say God is the one exception: we can submit to him because he is omnibenevolent. There is no good evidence for this and, if you look around at all the pain and suffering in the world compared to what is good and just, the evidence is clearly against an all-good god. Let us remember that a parent who doesn’t intervene to prevent evil is no parent at all. So we shouldn’t be impressed by a believer’s claim that God doesn’t cause suffering because only people do. There is nothing stopping an omnipotent and supposedly omnibenevolent being from offering counsel to those who err; this would not jeopardize something like free will. He also could have created us to be more ethically robust human beings, with brains better able to resist selfish or violent impulses; this would be no threat to freedom of choice - on the contrary it would increase it! He could have created the earth to make it more resilient against natural disasters. Furthermore, just because he created us, God doesn’t automatically get our respect. Respect must be earned, and I submit that the traditional Christian God does not deserve our respect. Again, if the response from a believer is simply circular reasoning that “God is all-good so he should have our respect,” this is not a rational argument as there is no evidence for God in the first place.
We have to use our own brains to work out our own lives, together. So let us get off our knees already, and walk upright as we evolved to do. Believers: stop looking up into the sky and look at each other, because we are all we’ve got. Quit praying for miracles, and use your hands to make a real difference in someone’s life. Realize that the only power out there is just your own character within. The more you think that you depend on God’s strength, the more your psychological health weakens.